nergy Efficiency and environmantal responsibility

Build Science 101: #4 – Efficiency and Environmental Responsibility

Build Science 101: #4 – Efficiency and Environmental Responsibility

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Today, Matt and Steve discuss energy efficiency and environmental responsibility in home building. Globally, numerous organisations and sustainability experts talk about these topics daily, yet most have never designed or built a home and seem to fail to realize that unless a solution is affordable and easily obtainable, most designers, builders, and specifiers will disregard these suggested products and improved building methods, especially those building for profit.

Indeed, our environmental responsibility compels us to do better, significantly better. However, we also need to devise ways to implement superior, simple designs, and building methods that are easy to adopt; otherwise, the process will continue to be a daunting challenge!

My proposed solution involves simplifying the process for designers and specifiers to adopt better products and building systems, whilst implementing better building practices. We should also reconsider unnecessary recertification of superior, tried and tested products for new territories. Are you listening, Auckland Council?

In Matt and Steve’s video, they dive deep into the core principles that they believe enable high-performance, low-impact homes. They break down factors like energy deltas, heat flow, and embodied energy in understandable terms. For anyone struggling to convey the value of energy conservation and environmental responsibility, this is a good perspective.

Matt and Steve emphasize the importance of evaluating every material choice through the lens of moral stewardship. They remind us that durability is one of the greatest tools for lowering lifetime environmental impact. They urge us to not only consider our buildings’ efficiency but also the ways in which we can build to minimize environmental impact and create better homes, for us, and our planet.

Video Transcript

All right, my friends, Building Science 101 Episode 4 coming at you: Building Science – Energy Efficiency and Environmental Responsibility. You know, this is one of my favorites. I know we have limits on what we can talk about, but if you want to pull up a chair, I can go on for about eight hours. We won’t do that, but let’s talk about this. It’s really interesting in today’s world. You have a bunch of people saying, “Oh my God, climate change this and that.” I’m not going to give any public opinion on that because that gets me in trouble. But you have those that believe, “Hey, we should do this,” and those that believe, “We should do that.” I’m in the camp where a house is a thousand decisions, that’s right. We should make the best decisions we possibly can for our clients, 100% right. I don’t care about passive house labels or any of these Green Building labels or platinum, silver, whatever levels. It’s tuning the project to my client’s budget and working with them to get the best possible result in energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. And my favorite word when I think about both efficiency and environmental responsibility is stewardship. You know, a steward is somebody that doesn’t own something but takes care of it for someone else. When I think of energy efficiency and environmental stewardship or responsibility, I think of stewardship. I don’t own a lot of what I get to use, so I need to treat that like a good steward would. As we get into this talk, I think there’s going to be some interesting things you’re going to find on this particular section because some of Stephen and my advice might be different than what you might think. Why don’t you start off with energy efficiency?

So, energy efficiency, this one’s a pretty easy one for me to explain. I again call up the two-headed monster. The very first part of energy efficiency is I need to purchase that energy that I’m going to transform into heating or cooling, but I need to purchase it at the lowest possible rate. So whether I’m buying gas, electricity, or oil, if you’re still up in the Northeast, I want to get that purchased energy as cheap as possible. Then I want to convert it as inexpensively as possible, and then I want to hold on to it as long as we possibly can. That’s right. Now we’re here in Episode 4, and every episode we talk about control. When we talked about it initially, we said you’re going to hear about it in every episode. Right. We talked about building and tuning the house to the climate and the building assemblies to that climate. We need to get control. It’s the same with energy efficiency. We want to hold on to whatever heating or cooling we have as long as possible.

There’s a couple of myths there. You know, in terms of cooling, cooling doesn’t move. So in the North where it’s nice and cold, if I’m inside and I want it to be 70 degrees inside, and it’s 0 degrees outside, then I have a delta across that wall of 70 degrees. That’s a big delta. That wall needs to perform exceptionally well. If I move down here in Texas, in heating mode, the worst case is probably this might get down to 60 or 55 degrees. That’s right. We’re talking about 10 or 15 degrees delta. That’s not a whole lot. But in the summertime when it’s 100 degrees here in Austin and I go inside and I want it to be 70 degrees, then I have a 30 degrees delta there. No matter how I look at it, gaining control is about creating an assembly or a building that can control that delta.

Obviously, heating can be a little higher only because those temperatures get drastic. But one of the myths I believe I’ve seen in energy is people kind of down south in the warmer climates seem to think, “Hey, it really doesn’t matter. That’s for you guys that are heating.” No, you’re buying electricity. That’s right. In some places, it might be cheap, but in some places, it’s really expensive. Depending on where you are, we have some places where you’re probably upwards of 24, 26 cents for electricity per kilowatt-hour. In some places, if we talk to our buddy Will, he’s like, “Yeah, we probably pay 8 or 9 cents a kilowatt-hour there, or up in the Northwest because a lot of their power is hydro. But holding onto it as long as possible, and remember when it comes to heat flow. Heat flow moves from hot to cold. That’s right. Cold doesn’t move. That’s right. I hear people all the time when they’re going to be talking about a building, “Oh, I’m going to insulate that so the cold doesn’t come in.” What cold doesn’t move. Let me throw a quick example of that that helps me understand that. You know when I moved to Texas 15 years ago, Yeti Coolers were just starting out.

I just had a cheap foam cooler in the back of my truck. I’d go to the job site at the end of the day, my ice was all melted. But some of these guys that I was seeing with these new fancy Yeti Coolers still had ice in the back of their truck. Now, ice is not an expensive item, although it has gotten more expensive the last couple of years. So, I would have to buy ice every day at 7-Eleven to keep my cooler cold with that day’s beverages if it was going to be 100 degrees out. That heat was flowing from more to less, from hot to cold. My cooler was getting heated up from the outside because it was hot in Texas, and it was melting the ice inside my cooler. Those Yeti Coolers have a few things that make them better at retaining ice. We could take that same example for our houses, for our walls, for our houses, as that moisture moves and as that heat moves from more to less. We need to remember that because that high school science physics principle of heat flow and moisture flow affects our buildings. It affects how we insulate them. It affects how we’re going to control both moisture and vapor drive in our buildings. It’s going to control why we want air tightness on our houses as well.

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You’re right, and we never get above zero, and you’re always in debt to the environment. We’re in debt to the environment, and we’re trying to work our way out of that debt. We’re never going to get above that credit line. We’re always in debt. So, that raises the question of how much in debt do I want to be with the house that we’re designing and building or the remodeling job that we’re doing. I would say that, in general, remodeling is less environmentally costly than building new. Not moving into a finished house that’s already completed is ultimately probably the best thing because that environmental debt was already paid decades or maybe even centuries ago. I’m always discouraged when I drive by and I see somebody putting up a new house out in a field or cutting down a half acre of trees and they’re building a new house that I would consider a garbage house.

Now, I know they’re going to say, “Well, we’re building the code and we’re doing this.” But the reality is, you have thousands of choices, and there are probably at least a hundred choices that I could help you make that are right off the top that wouldn’t add any cost but would make a world of difference in that house and also help your clients gain control. When they gain control, they gain comfort, they gain health, they gain energy efficiency, all of those things, and durability. All of those things help with environmental responsibility. Right? If you take durability and we put durability up against environmental responsibility, and this is not me, this is Joe talking because he told me this one day we were sitting down, and he said, “If I build a house and it lasts 50 years, and then they tear it down and build another house, well, if the neighbor builds a house a hundred years, then they’ve had the resource accountability of that house right next to their neighbors that only lasted 50 years, for sure, right?”

So, you know, in context when you’re thinking about environmental responsibility, and I label it as a moral choice, right? It’s not something there’s nowhere in a code book it’s going to say, “Can’t use this, you should only use this information,” unless it’s a life safety issue. But moral choices are not in the code book; a building inspector doesn’t give a damn about your moral choices and carbon counting and carbon footprint; he doesn’t care. It’s a moral choice. So, in those thousands of decisions, we want to try and make the best decisions. Now, as an architect, it becomes somewhat of a juggling act because I can sit here and say, “Yeah, this is probably a slightly better moral decision, but this one is talking about durability, and for me personally, I live by ‘if it don’t last, it don’t matter.’ Right?” In the durability, so I want to make a building that lasts, that has the right choices because if I do that, then we go back to Joe’s little explanation about having the resources.

The other thing I want to bring up on this point, and I don’t want to necessarily say that other cultures are better than our culture, but you and I grew up in America, a fairly young country in the scheme of the world’s countries. Where I grew up in the Northeast, I really didn’t know any houses that were older than maybe 150, 200 years old. Where I’m in Texas, there’s very few houses here that are older than a hundred years old. Whereas when Steve and I have traveled through Europe, and we’re not saying Europe’s the best and we should build like Europe, but one thing that’s different is when you grow up in a culture that has buildings regularly that are a few hundred years old or maybe when I visited Japan, I was in some buildings that were a thousand years old. I was in England a couple of years ago and stayed in a Tavern that was built in the 1200s. It gives you a different perspective on longevity. And I think one thing that I’m hopeful that you guys will get from this series is that it’s not hard, it’s just a little different and making a few more choices and we can build a building that instead of what you mentioned earlier that might last 50 years without a problem, that might actually go several hundred years without a problem. And what a different environmental responsibility and a different environmental footprint, a building that’s built to last several hundred years than maybe a building that you’re going to be thankful to get out of the first mortgage without having some problems or having major issues or major things that need to be changed or replaced on that house. It kind of goes back to a little bit of an old story I tell clients about hardwood floors. I’m a big fan of white oak floors. You know, in the years I’ve been remodeling, I’ve pulled a lot of white floors up, denailed them, saved them in the corner, put them back down, sanded them, and finished them. And that hundred-year-old floor looked brand new again. White oak is a very slow-growing tree; this is a precious commodity. Maybe it got cut down ten years ago, last week, or a hundred years ago. I think white oak floors are a really sustainable, a really good environmental choice for a floor because they’re so darned durable and easily able to be reused. Compare that, let’s say, with a luxury vinyl floor that looks amazing and actually looks a lot like wood the day you put it down, but ten years from now needs to be thrown in a landfill, and you’ve got to buy a whole another floor for that house. It can’t be resanded, it can’t be refinished; it simply gets trashed. The same is true with carpet. I really tried to avoid carpet on my houses over the last couple of years because it holds things that your feet bring in, and then as you step on it, those get released into the air, and invariably, within a few short years, it looks bad; you have to throw it away and get a whole another set of carpet in that house. I realize these are costly choices, but sometimes the more costly choice, the more thoughtful choice, the choice to build a smaller and better-built house is the better choice ultimately for you, for your grandchildren, and for the environment that we live in.

You bring up a really good point because I just use your example of hardwood floor against a luxury vinyl tile. One of the things when it comes to the environment is this term embodied energy. You take the luxury vinyl tile, well, somewhere in the world, we’re extracting a bunch of chemicals, probably a lot of them are petroleum-based. They’re being trucked or trained or shipped to a certain location. They’re going to get refined in a certain manner, then they’re going to get trucked or shipped again to the manufacturing plant, which may be halfway around, halfway around the world. Then that stuff is going to get made, get put on a truck, a train, or a ship, and get shipped out somewhere. As opposed to the white oak that might be getting milled 200 miles from your house in a sawmill and then it gets delivered via a truck or through the distribution channels and comes, but the embodied energy might be a lot less. The embodied energy is basically all of that cumulative effort to extract it to the time that it arrives on the job site and gets put in. If something is a lot more complex or you have to take that vinyl flooring and now I have to buy some type of adhesive that got extracted somewhere and mixed, and then put down on the floor and mixed to be put in to get that vinyl floor, as opposed to a nail that goes in my oak floor, you know, there’s all of these things. And again, I’m not trying to judge; I’m just trying to expand your spectrum of thinking that, hey, when you go to your local lumberyard or Resource Center, you might want to just start asking just a couple questions, “Hey, where do you know where that’s manufactured? Do you know what that’s made out of? Do a little bit of research because there might be an alternative that raises your credit score, and it gets you a little bit more out of debt.”

We went through a lot, Steve. Really good stuff. We talked about energy efficiency; we talked about environmental responsibility, which I think ultimately is being a good steward of the resources that you’ve been given, whether that resource is the clean air in your city, the clean water in your rivers, or this Earth that we get to steward for some 70 or 80 years, maybe if I get to live that long. My hope, guys, is that we’ve encouraged you guys to build better, to also think about building. Frankly, and whether you need to build because any building project is going to have some debt to the environment. Anything you want to add?

Yeah, I just want to leave you with one thought. The next time, if you’re a builder, architect, homeowner, before you go out and start bragging about how great your house is, if you really want to brag, start talking to me about how you minimized how bad you were when you were building that house. A great point. This episode of Build Science 101 brought to you by our friends at Sashco. Now, if you’re not familiar with this company, this is the maker of Big Stretch, Lexel, Slab, Through the Roof. They’ve got a whole suite of high-performance products that we use all over our projects. How did you come across these guys?

As an architect, dealing with details and bringing them down to the finest details, especially when you’re doing high-performance passive homes. You know, the smallest of cracks add up to become very large air leakage numbers, and here we are talking about performance in our 101 series. You know, Sashco is the one that bridges all of those little gaps, and they have a full spectrum of material so that if it’s a crack in a slab or a crack in a wall or a need for sealant, they have their concrete products, their roof products; it’s a one-stop shopping.

Here’s my quick story from Sashco. In my previous life, before I started my custom building company about 20 years ago, I was a warranty manager for a production builder, and we used really kind of inexpensive products, whatever was available, whatever the painter wanted to pick up. And I found that when I came back to that one-year warranty call in my houses, every house had $800 or so worth of re-caulking, repainting, drywall, all that kind of stuff. I just assumed at that stage of my life that everybody’s stair stringer, everybody’s crown molding, everybody’s base molding was going to crack after being in the house for a year. We just kind of budgeted it in. As I started my home building company, I did a bunch of research and said there’s got to be a better product out there. Like if I spend another $2 more or whatever on a product, in particular, Big Stretch is what I ran into, would it perform for me? Would I not have those callbacks? And you know what? Here we are almost 20 years later, I haven’t used anything but Big Stretch on my houses for all of my interior painting and caulking needs. But beyond that, they also make Lexel. Talk to me about Lexel.

We use Lexel I mean pretty much exclusively on all of our air leakage systems. You know, mudsill, I have my little detail where we put two beads of it down sandwiching the mudsill sealer there under there, and we’ve never had a house. When you deal with a detail like that, you have to put a material in; we don’t get a chance for a second chance at it. So we have to put something in there that we’re going to trust and believe in. And you know what? Lexel is that. These guys, their motto is small details lead to big performance, and that fits right in with this Build Science 101 series. You know, I’ve heard you say, Steve, that there are miles of cracks in our houses, and that leads up to poor blow door performance, to ingress of pests and all kinds of things. Whereas if you really buy good sealants, good caulkings from Sashco, you’re going to lead to better performance in your house. So, guys, big thanks to Sashco for sponsoring. You can learn more at Steve, good stuff, guys. Stay tuned for episode five of Building Science 101. We’ll see you next time on the Build Science 101.