Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Green is the New Gray and that's Okay!

My journey in sustainability continues with today’s report on a seminar attended during the JLCLive show in Providence, RI. Sponsored by The Journal of Light Construction, a Hanley Wood publication, JLCLive caters to residential and light commercial builders through print, web and trade events.

The mission was participation in a full-day seminar on green building to broaden my knowledge, bring clarity to thoughts on sustainable construction, and depart with fewer questions than when arriving.

The time spent was well worth it. A good show for any remodelers or builders interested in refreshing their library of knowledge, seeing new materials and tools, or simply connecting and exchanging notes with others in the market.

Before describing the seminar it’s important to recognize those who often go unrecognized. While delving into sustainability I’ve found people are eager help and I have many to thank.

How Did I Get Here?

Due in large part to our hyper-connected world I learned of the Journal of Light Construction and JLCLive through word-of-mouth, better yet, by word-of-tweet.

Those who know me are aware that I use Twitter for its unique ability to easily find and connect people with shared interests. One such person is Leah Thayer, a talented editor with Remodeling Magazine (Hanley Wood) who tweets regularly posing great questions, and promoting dialogue. I’m grateful to Leah for introducing me to a blogger at Remodeling Magazine named Michael Anschel. Michael is principal of otogawa-anschel a design + build firm from Minneapolis and a knowledgeable opinion leader of the sustainability movement. An interesting mix of design talent, community responsibility, entrepreneurism and unbridled enthusiasm on all things green. By that, I mean green with a pragmatic twist. Michael also happens to be the speaker for the green build session at JLCLive.

Unrelated to JLCLive are more to acknowledge, more than I can practically highlight in this post. Three individuals stand out. Sean with SLSConstruction offers a background in remodeling and residential construction with a small business vantage point on sustainability. Another friend to mention is Merrill Stewart, LEED AP and founder of the Stewart Perry Company a commercial contractor with nationwide scope and leader in the transition to better building. And James Bedell, a bundle of energy and expert in commercial lighting design by day. The remainder of his time is consumed organizing Build2Sustain with focus on sustainable reuse of the many existing commercial structures across the US. I’m convinced he doesn’t sleep and will leave the world a better place than how he found it.

All engaging, all leading, all going well out of their way to help me wade through and learn about green building. None of whom I would know without Twitter. Follow them.

A Square Peg in a Rectangular Hole with Radiused Corners

I almost fit in...sort of...with a little extra effort and finishing I may just make it through. These were my feelings as I arrived for the seminar. The room was cavernous as you might expect with a convention center. Chairs carefully aligned in rows, three to each narrow folding-table, knee-breaking undercarriage, structured learning. Rigid.

I strolled in behind the presenter (suit was a dead giveaway) as he casually suggested that we ditch the lecture style rows and rearrange the furniture in semicircle format to encourage dialogue. Relieved. No need to sit with my back to contributors or speak to the rear of anyone’s head. Many others wandered in and all set-to, grabbing chairs, sliding tables, shaking hands and just getting the job done-predisposed to action.

Attendees chose seats and got comfortable anticipating the start, with hushed conversations among table partners and noticeable fidgeting. Michael broke the ice asking each student to rise, provide background on themselves, names, where they were from, how long they’d been in business, that sort of thing. Most were from the Northeast with one participant from Washington State and midwest representation from our facilitator. The diversity in origin proved beneficial in highlighting some of the regional differences in design and construction. The crowd was generally upbeat, all either remodelers or new construction general contractors. I was the square peg, the sole product guy in the room, and pleased to be there.

The attendees viewed sustainability as a paradigm shift, wanting to understand more about it, hoping to sort through the relevance and priority of various green debates - eagerly planning to grow their businesses, do well for their clients, and by extension leave positive affect on society. This was different and welcomed.

After introductions Michael set expectations by saying, “I won’t be giving any answers today, the session will be interactive and we will challenge ourselves to think through issues and solutions.” That’s exactly what we received...lesson learned.

My Quest for the Elusive Formula

Before attending the JLCLive event I reviewed materials furnished by the USGBC, NAHB, MNGreenStar, BuildingSciences Corporation, EnergyStar, NC HealthyBuilt Homes and many others. Each source providing its own brand of sustainability or regurgitation of work adapted from others. Given the volume of information available and varying explanations of sustainable construction this session confirmed that a formulaic approach to understanding may not be the best approach-getting it right is more complex than that, and rightly so. My mission to come away with “the formula” was dashed but edification wasn’t.

We held helpful discussions, tangential deep dives on specifics, covered basics and organized thoughts and approaches to participating in green. The primary takeaway for me was high-level ordering. A mental process to use in understanding cause and effect with design and material selection related to home design and construction. In the interest of full disclosure the following principles align best with the MNGreenStar school, of which Michael Anschel has affiliation...for this class the prioritization was slightly different and I found it helpful.

  1. Site/Community Impact - extension of the projects affect on local and global community.
  2. Water Conservation - consideration for use of potable and gray water both in and near the project.
  3. Indoor Environmental Quality - establishment of a healthier indoor environment through mold reduction, minimization of toxic inhalants, efficient and natural lighting.
  4. Resource Efficiency - durable materials, minimal waste, infrequent maintenance.
  5. Energy Efficiency - build for efficiency, reduce green house gas emissions and permanently minimize energy expense.
  6. Adaptability - homes are built to stand the test of time, adaptability is a critical success factor and often overlooked.
While all green-build programs have merit and strive toward sustainability I found this list easy to absorb and, specifically, the priority attached to each item compelling. These are just a few highlights from the discussion and I hope a good starting point for readers of this blog who venture this way.

Have I learned? From the JLCLive session and from other information reviewed I now default to questions before drawing conclusions. I see buildings and wonder about optimal orientation. I pass hardscapes and consider permeability and heat island effect. I see wall assemblies and think insulation and vapor management. I notice irrigation and consider gray water with native and adapted plants. Building materials move me past function and aesthetics to embodied energy, end-of-life, life-cycle. Roof lines now do more than keep weather out, they’re about geometry, color and energy management. Learning.

The Dawn of Progress

As important as the material shared in the session, I found refreshing the enthusiasm of those participating. These were construction pros. Some more accomplished and comfortable with the notion of green build than others but each offering valuable insights for this square peg. One group stood out in both attendance numbers and zeal for doing things better - for continuous improvement. Harmony Builders, led by Wyatt and Dan, formed their model around sustainable building, not for fashion or trend sense, but because it was the right way for them to add value for their customers and to lay a foundation for generations to come. Long-term thinkers - doers - role models - winners, leaving satisfied customers and durable projects in their wake.

The Harmony Builders team knew a great deal about green building through experience, were happy to share and most assertive at learning more and better tips, techniques and ideas. In Dan’s words “Our process for building is constantly being scrutinized and evaluated by us. One of the things we say to each other is that when you stop learning you start going backward. I find it sad when I meet a builder that knows it all and has for a while.  Like Michael Anschel said, ‘there are no answers.’  I believe It is the struggle for the answers that make the difference.”

Dan’s comment sums up my experience with the green build session at JLCLive nicely. Do things better.

I left with more questions than when I arrived, adapted mission accomplished.

Green is the new gray and that’s okay!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

We Want Faster Horses

While drafting this post I happened across an anonymous quote and it struck me as relevant. “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they needed they would have said faster horses.”

History confirms that Mr. Ford was not ignoring his customers, simply listening better than most with vision firmly fixed on the horizon. A paradigm shift in the making.

Differentiate Begins with Different

The accomplishment of Ford and his enterprise is remarkable on many fronts. Revolutionizing production, vertical integration, value-based design, commonality of components and guerrilla marketing for its day.

Ford successfully shifted the expectations of his prospects to understand the value he proposed. From this grew many opportunities for others along with entirely new markets and industries to support them. No easy feat:

  • Roads were primarily cobblestone or rutted cart paths
  • Street cars, railroads and ferries were the de facto modes of mass transit
  • Horses, carriages and wagons were the norm in personal transport
  • Interstate highways did not exist
  • Fueling stations were rare
  • Repair shops scarce
For sure Ford was marketing his twenty horsepower Model-T as a replacement for draft and quarter horses and associated wagons and carriages. He kept at it with the basic “Tin Lizzie” that remained largely unchanged for decades. After a successful twenty year run it was phased out in favor of the Model A in 1927.

It’s interesting to review advertisements from the early days. In 1908 Ford marketed the Model T. Print advertisements in black and white, likely all that was available, mainly textual with very limited graphics. A simple message - function, durability, and business sense “Eleven to seven. A merchant who knows says that it cost him eleven cents per delivery by horses and seven by Ford cars.”, obliquely targeting the newfound limitations of his prospects faithful steeds.

By the 1920s Ford had shifted mainstream customers toward the automobile and learned that growth and survival depended on addressing needs rather than simply providing a good product. This is reflected in the advertising of the twenties where graphics are emphasized, color introduced, and the message moving from durability and reliability toward lifestyle and choice...freedom and flexibility for Ford customers. A notion that rings true to this day.

(More Ford Motor Company advertisements can be found at museum)

Life-Cycle Mismatch

A life-cycle mismatch exists between home building conventions and the changing needs of contemporary homeowners.

Today’s home construction paradigm is to overbuild with lots of permanently installed low voltage wiring. This includes in-wall cables for computers, television, home theater, whole-house audio, security and automation. On its face the habit makes sense. Many cables and outlets with all sorts of connectivity throughout the home for immediate and future needs. Structured wiring ready for TV, data, telephone, automation and security. What more could a homeowner want?

Less obvious when designing and building is that low voltage wires permanently embedded in your walls have real limitations in form factor and performance. This is not to say they’re poorly designed, rather that they sustain known performance requirements but fail to recognize how quickly the technology behind consumer electronics change.

Compare the life expectancy of any consumer electronic gadget to the lifespan of the home and a major mismatch becomes clear.


In today’s residential design and construction community a welcomed shift toward sustainability is taking hold. As emphasized by the USGBC and NAHB, a key element in “green” construction is to minimize home energy consumption and conserve from there.

Using an integrative approach with collaboration between homeowners, architects, and builders, new homes are being right-sized with efficient climate control systems and building shell improvements including advanced insulation. Energy requirements reduced, conservation increased...a net gain in comfort with reduced carbon footprint.

So why be concerned with low voltage wiring?

It’s not the cables so much as the changes to those cables throughout the life of the home. We often rewire when new consumer electronics come to market. The process involves “snaking” behind sheetrock and within the stud cavity of the wall. While not obvious from the undisturbed surface, the process is destructive to properly installed insulation.  Snaking wires through walls disrupts the insulation envelope creating voids, or thermal bridges, and opportunity for permanent heat energy escape. This works against modern principles of energy conservation in home design.

We Want Faster Wires

Like better transportation in the early twentieth century, faster wires will be necessary in the twenty-first, with continual upgrades throughout the life of the home.

To effectively answer this challenge, the home structure needs a way to rewire without disrupting its energy conserving nature. This is precisely what the eXapath™ in-wall cable pathways system from Homepath Products achieves. An idea that goes far beyond adding a cable chase from the attic to the basement or a few conduits in the walls.

  • eXapath is about homeowners and their needs.
  • It’s about adding the flexibility to rewire every wall.
  • It’s about the ability to adapt to the latest technology.
  • It’s about the flexibility to introduce technology from floor to ceiling.
  • It’s about adding outlets before or after drywall without disruption to the insulation envelope.
  • It’s about flexibility and choice.

Building Freedom and Flexibility for Modern Homeowners

We know the need to conserve energy is here to stay, and rightly so. Likewise, consumer electronics evolve and demand grows unabated.

Don’t just give homeowners what they want, give them what they need. Freedom and flexibility for a modern lifestyle. Choice.

Couple the integrative design/build approach emphasized by the USGBC and NAHB with eXapath. Play a role in shifting the latest paradigm.

Energy savings and replaceable cabling.