Monday, April 28, 2014

Week 16 - Starting on the driveway

This week, work began on excavating the driveway to connect the utilities to the street. Everything was supposed to be done by the end of the week, but it looks like we’re only about half way there. Work on the house slowed down substantially, although some window framing got done and some of the building wrap went up.

On Monday, Don put up the building wrap around the first floor. The building wrap is meant to allow moisture to exit from inside the walls, but not let moisture into the walls. I have no idea how that is possible, but apparently it works.

Believe it or not, the building wrap that you see is one single piece! It defies logic how Don managed to string up the wrap by himself, holding it up while taping it to the wall while making sure that it is flush and wrinkle free. Not to mention, it was getting windy that day.

Excavation got started on Wednesday. Tractors and diggers arrived, as did piles of gravel and engineered dirt. I missed most of the action, but the neighbors said there was lots of activity.

Buried under the dirt are water lines, sewer lines, electricity, phone and cable, each spaced apart a certain distance specified by the code. The end result is a wide area that needs to be dug up even though the actual pipes aren’t that big.

The good news is that the sewer at the street turned out to be 15 feet deep, allowing us to drain into the sewer using gravity rather than a pump. The bad news is that it must have been quite a challenge to get down there. I’m guessing these big steel braces help keep the dirt from collapsing while the pipes are connected underground.

Here’s the location of my future vegetable and native plant garden, under which lie electrical conduit. I’m hoping the soil doesn’t get too disturbed or compacted, but I guess that’s far fetched.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Week 15 - Roof is up, working on window framing

The week involved finishing the roof sheathing, working on the window frames and building a temporary staircase. Things are starting to get detailed, and are taking more time. Below, I’ll show how the windows are framed since the process appears to be non-standard (and important).

Roof almost done before the snow

Don almost had the roof complete before the wind picked up and nearly blew him off (according to how he tells it). The next day, the rain and snow ended up getting everywhere. Above, a little bit of snow is still left on the roof after the storm. I love this shot of the back of the house from the apple orchard. As architect Todd said: “the house sits nicely on the land.”

A look at the scissor roof trusses

Here’s a cool shot of the scissor trusses. ZIP panels will be attached to the underside, forming the air barrier as well as the gabled ceiling of the two front rooms. Almost 2 feet of blown-in cellulose insulation will go on top of the ZIP panels, outside the airtight envelope. There is some reduction in the insulating ability of the cellulose due to the fact that cold air will be able to move through the insulation, but the advantage is that moisture will not get trapped.

The roof truss at the eave sits on the ZIP air barrier. The ZIP will continue along the scissor truss. Notice how the floor joists are angled to accommodate the ZIP and drywall.

It takes time to frame these windows

Normally, the window framing would be complete at this point (except the sill is missing in the image above). With our construction, the window frame spans two walls: the SIP wall and the stud wall, so there’s quite a bit more to do. The two walls must be bridged in a way that is airtight and moisture repellent. Don and a helper spent much of the week finishing the extra steps to frame the windows, and reported that the process was somewhat elaborate and time consuming.

First, if you look closely at the SIP part of the frame, you’ll see a gap between exterior OSB panel and the foam insulation. That gap is meant to allow 2 x 2 wood pieces to be wedged there, to provide somewhere to nail the rest of the framing to the SIP.

Next, the green ZIP sheathing is nailed to the frame, bridging the two walls. Caulking is applied under the ZIP to prevent water and air from migrating horizontally.

2 x 10 boards are nailed to the ZIP to provide a solid wood frame, to which the window can be attached. Again, caulking is applied under the boards.

The entire window frame has the appearance of being over-engineered — it’s three boards thick in some places. I wonder if this bomb-proof structure is by design — to reduce load stresses and sheer stress from the windows — or if it’s just a function of having to deal with the SIP wall and stud wall discontinuity. As you might imagine, measuring all these boards, caulking and nailing takes a substantial amount of time.

But we’re not finished. Outside (1st floor window pictured here), the SIP is affixed to the interior window frame with gigantically long screws, and then tape is applied where the ZIP meets the SIP. As far as I can tell, this location — the outside of the SIP — is the primary air barrier. The window will sit right on the edge of the innermost 2 x 10 boards.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Week 14 - Starting to look like a house

The walls are in place and the roof trusses are up. Don and crew are now working on the roof ZIP sheathing. It’s starting the come together and look like a house! The weather has been amazing, and that might be a big reason why so much got done this week.

Using the lull to raise the SIP walls

The ground dried up enough so that Don could maneuver the lull through the mud, allowing him to raise the SIPs on the east and west sides. These panels are considerable bigger than those on the north and south sides. It would have been difficult to lift them by hand, so we really lucked out.

The movie shows the lull lifting the SIP, with a rope used to stabilize the SIP. Notice how the SIP starts to slip off the fork, and then the guys on the roof were able to pull it back into place, but not before having to walk out on the headers like acrobats. They are fearless. Keep in mind that there’s no floor under them – they are balancing on the header beams, and on one side there’s a two story drop!

Once the lull got the SIP most of the way up, the guys on the roof were able to pull it upright against the house.

To help lift the panel onto the foundation ledge by hand, a little plastic handle came in handy.

Sliding these large panels over was difficult, so the lull was used to push them in place. For some reason, the panels on this side came out bowed and it was tough to get them to interlock. Using the lull to push on the panel, the guys banged furiously on the seam, gradually jostling the two panels together.

Update on the views from the windows out back

It’s interesting. Now that the walls are up, I’m more happy with the views out back. The walls do indeed obscure parts of the view that were wonderful, but now that you can’t see those parts, you don’t know they are missing. Instead, all you see is a subset of the view, but it looks charming regardless.

If you walk up to the rear bedroom window, you can get a pretty wide angle view, just not the whole wrap around view. Still, it would have been nice to have more windows on this side of the house, but I’m happy with how it turned out. Neighbor Jesse (an architect, coincidentally) says that sometimes it’s good to have to work for the view.

Details at the window frame and roof eave

ZIP sheathing at the window opening provides a moisture resistive barrier and air barrier all in one panel. The edge of the sheathing is taped around the corner of the rough opening.

At the roof eave, the ZIP sheathing is placed face down. The tape runs along the underside of the sheathing and is dangling out, eventually to be taped to more ZIP sheathing that will run under the roof truss. Lots of caulking went under the ZIP sheathing – between the SIP and the ZIP – presumably to allow the SIP to expand without lifting apart the critical ZIP barrier. More tape will go on the other corner of the ZIP where it meets the outer side of the SIP.

Roof trusses arrived

The roof trusses were manufactured off site and delivered on Tuesday. The lull came in handy for getting these up on the roof.

The rest of the week was spent working on the roof, even with two extra guys for some of the time. It seemed like a lot of work went into getting this part of the roof together.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Week 13 - Getting the SIP walls up!

It was an exciting week. Don finished the second floor framing and spent Thursday and Friday putting up the SIPs along the north and south walls, with the help of two younger guys. They were an awesome team to watch, constantly bantering, moving here and there, helping each other out, and communicating about tactics, problems and next steps. It’s great to see an experienced team — a fine tuned machine — working like that. They are, however, pretty cavalier about running up and down the ladders — the most jiggly and unstable ladders I’ve ever seen — which was scary to watch, but entertaining.

Forklift instead of a crane, didn’t work out

Instead of a crane, Integrity decided to use a large forklift to lift the SIPs. A crane is more expensive than a forklift and it seemed like it would do the job just as well. Turns out that we didn’t even need the forklift. It got stuck in the mud around the perimeter of the home, and wast therefore totally useless. It’s not clear from the image above, but those tracks are at least two feet deep.

Raising the SIPs

Instead, we carried over the SIPs by hand and raised them by walking it up from one end, as the video above shows. It’s pretty heavy, but doable.

The whole SIP installation process

First, narrow strips of OSB are measured and cut, inserted into the grove at the SIP’s edge, and nailed into place. These inserts help lock the SIPs together.

The plastic vapor barrier is wrapped from under the concrete, over the EPS foam, back over a piece of plywood directly on top of the foam, and then up along the frame. A double strip of caulking is applied to the plastic at the ledge where the SIP will sit.

Once the SIP is standing vertically, it must be lifted up onto the ledge, which is awkward, but the guys were able to do it — they seem to have fingers of glue. Then the SIP is slid over against its neighbor. It is surprisingly easy to slide the SIP along the ledge, apparently due to the smoothness of the plastic and an ample amount of caulking. Banging along bottom of the SIP gets the bottom end flush with the adjacent panel (to within an eight to a quarter of an inch), where it is fixed with a nail before the top is wedged into place, bringing the whole panel flush with its neighbor.

The image above shows Don nailing the panel to the insert.

A 2 x 8 board is laid in the grove at the top of the SIP and nailed into place.

Gigantic screws fasten the SIP to the frame.

By the end of Thursday, almost the whole north wall was complete.

Because of the extra spacing between each panel, about 1/2“ to 3/4” had to be cut off of the end of the panel to make it flush with the frame.

Finally getting to see how the window openings look

I’ve been looking forward to seeing how the top of the stairway would turn out for about a year now. Looking out at the window over the stairs settles it: let’s remove the shelving at the top of the stairs — the view would be interrupted too severely. The question remains: how will we make up for the lost storage space?

Looking in the other direction, the study window feels a bit small, but the mountain is nicely framed.

Adding the third window in the middle really makes this view from the master bedroom work. I’m so glad we decided to go with it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Eight myths about fossil fuel divestment

I’m giving a little talk at a fossil fuel divestment teach-in at Amherst College on Friday. There is an important way that the Potwine Passive House fits into the conversation, so I thought I would share my thought process here.

The concept of divestment is simple: don’t invest in the fossil fuel industry. The rationale is simple: don’t support a destructive and corrupt industry. Beyond the simple concept, a whole host of brilliant cascading effects lead me to believe that divestment is a great way to jump start the transition to a clean energy economy.

The complication arises when you factor in the industry-sponsored noise and misinformation that always overwhelms these types of political conversations. To counteract that noise, I started by trying to understand the points made by the industry in opposition to divestment. Then I compiled a top ten list of myths that seem to form the basis of that opposition.

Myth #1: It’s your fault, not the oil and gas industry’s

Who’s using electricity right now surfing the internet? Who drove around today, greedily burning fossil fuels? It wasn’t the oil and gas industry: they are simply providing a product that you want.

In fact, the public is not entirely responsible for our fossil fuel usage. It is true that we are all using dirty energy, but we don’t have a legitimate choice. The electricity and transportation infrastructure simply doesn’t exist right now to provide a fair choice between competing sources of energy.

Consider the paradox of Microsoft Office, a dominant product that is widely condemned and hasn’t improved in decades. It maintains its position in the market not by its merit, but by its ubiquity. We all use Microsoft Office even though there are more innovative alternatives (and have been for years) that would improve our lives and make us more productive, yet we can’t switch because it would involve a huge personal risk or inconvenience.

Likewise, the oil and gas industry offers a product that is scientifically proven to be causing irreparable harm, and yet we can’t switch to alternative energy sources — not because there aren’t better solutions, but because we are saddled with an entrenched fossil fuel infrastructure: our roads are made for cars, not bicycles; your building is heated with fossil fuels regardless of how much you turn down the heat; and if you wanted to buy clean electricity for your home, you would have to pay more.

Myth #2: Fossil fuels benefit society

Look around at the amazing achievements of civilization: hospitals are using electricity to cure people; buses are using gasoline to drive kids to school; construction workers are being hired to build pipelines; and so on. You want to destroy our economy and put innocent people out of work by making it harder to burn fossil fuels?

The perception that societal progress is due to our usage of fossil fuels is incorrect. Fossil fuels are inefficient, destructive and marginal sources of energy, retarding the advancement of society and costing far more than their economic benefit.

Few of us know the depth to which fossil fuel usage is horribly inefficient. The energy efficiency of an incandescent light bulb, powered by a fossil fuel power plant, is only 1%! In other words, 99% of the energy of the natural gas or coal that went into the power plant is wasted as rejected heat, transmission losses from the power plant and heat loss in the light bulb itself. Likewise, the energy efficiency of a gasoline powered car is only 1%! In other words, 99% of the energy of the oil that goes into the gas tank is lost in the engine, in accelerating and braking, in friction and in moving the entire car rather than just the driver. These inefficiencies are, unfortunately, largely unavoidable — a fundamental consequence of using heat to propel a generator or an automobile engine.

Not only is fossil fuel usage much more wasteful than most people think, it’s also one of the greatest public health threats on the planet. The combustion process releases small particulates and toxic impurities bound up in the raw fuel stock, causing disease, cancer and ultimately leading to 50,000 deaths each year in the United States alone and $150 billion in health costs each year. An economic analysis found that the health impacts of coal electricity cost society twice as much as the value added to society.

Myth #3: We can’t live without fossil fuels

It’s useless to lament the inefficiency and widespread public health threat of fossil fuels because no form of renewable energy can support our lifestyle or lift the world’s poor out of poverty.

In reality, the technology exists to dramatically reduce how much energy we waste, and the available wind and solar energy resources are sufficient to fill the remaining gap. LED lights powered by solar electricity are nearly 80% efficient, 80 times more efficient than an incandescent light bulb. Electric cars are nearly 10% efficient, ten times more efficient than a gasoline powered car. An electric heat pump is twice as efficient as a gas furnace. These huge efficiency improvements are mostly due to the fact that electron-based technologies are not subject to the same heat losses of combustion-based technologies.

Even more improvements in renewable energy and storage technologies are on the horizon, and will certainly help in the future, but they are not essential today. We are living in an exciting time where many long sought after renewable and efficiency technologies are rapidly maturing. The cost of renewable energy has already fallen dramatically as it reaches scale. In Texas, solar electricity is cheaper than natural gas electricity. In Massachusetts, the return on investment for solar panels is twice that of the stock market.

To help prove the point, I am building an affordable home that doesn’t use a single drop of fossil fuels, and will be powered entirely by the sun. A remarkable combination of solar heating, efficient components and super-insulation help reduce the energy consumption of the home by a factor of 8 compared to the average Massachusetts home. Because the home is so efficient, solar panels cover only a small fraction of the roof area, leaving plenty of room for extra solar panels to charge an electric car. Using so little electricity, backup battery systems are economically feasible, allowing the home to be disconnect from the transmission grid, an expensive source of inefficiency.

Underlying the home’s astonishing energy savings is the Passivhaus design method, an assortment of techniques, technologies and guidelines needed to obtain such a high level of efficiency. The Passivhaus method is not a crazy unproven idea: decades of research underpin the method; tens of thousands of successful homes and buildings have already been built; and, in many cities in Germany, the standard has been adopted as the building code. These tremendous energy savings can be obtained in nearly any building, often saving costs in the long run. My biggest surprise with the project has been that going zero energy isn’t the hard part. Making decisions without adequate information, following up on loose ends, planning, communicating, getting permitting and getting a loan were the difficult parts. Making the home zero energy was easy. As long as you commit to it, living without fossil fuels is easy.

Myth #4: Existing institutions will lead the way

You’ve seen the commercials. Chevron, ExxonMobile, BP are investing millions in alternative energy. Your utility company is helping people weatherize their homes. Your college is building a LEED certified building. Our institutions have made us into a great country and they will lead the way to clean energy.

The simple fact is that few large governmental, educational or corporate institutions are investing aggressively in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Investment in renewables is typically more of a public relations tactic than a truly disruptive mobilization. Most energy companies invest less than 1% of their expenditures on renewables. There is no evidence that all those LEED certified buildings on campus actually save energy.

Our institutions are not willing to invest in renewables and energy efficiency for the simple reason that they are accustomed to and reliant on fossil fuels and therefore have no incentive to lead the shift to renewables. History tells us that large organizations are often incapable of quickly pivoting in a new direction. We cannot depend on them to willingly give up revenue, retrain their work force, or overhaul their operations for the greater good of the planet — unless they are compelled to do so.

Myth #5: Don’t blame people in the oil and gas industry

Many hardworking folks are employed by the oil and gas industry. It is unfair to blame them for the unanticipated side effects of fossil fuels and the failure of solar and wind to economically compete with fossil fuels.

Here, we should be careful to distinguish between employees who are doing nothing wrong and decision-makers at the executive level who are knowingly stifling renewable energy by lobbying against renewable energy and energy efficiency incentives, lobbying against public transportation, lobbying against oil and gas regulation, securing lucrative tax breaks and subsidies, and creating a vast network of think tanks and organizations that spread an incredible amount of misinformation about the science of climate change. There is no legal way to compel oil and gas companies to operate their businesses in an ethical manner. Public pressure, however, can be an effective way to reform an industry.

Myth #6: Divestment won’t make a difference

If colleges and universities divest from fossil fuels, the total sum of those investments will not make a significant difference in the industry’s ability to access capital. No one can honestly believe that the most powerful companies in the world will voluntarily relinquish the trillions of dollars in fossil fuel resources that they control. Publicly traded fossil fuel companies control a small fraction of the world’s proven reserves anyway.

Divestment is not the only step needed to achieve a clean energy future. It is a brilliant starting point, a necessary first step that might actually be able to achieve a goal that is seemingly unattainable. The divestment movement is nominally about the moral authority of colleges and universities. However, a deeper significance exists: the ability to imagine a world without fossil fuels. Eliminating one’s financial dependency on fossil fuels helps break through a powerful psychological barrier: the belief that a dependency on fossil fuels is necessary. This is the true power of divestment. Colleges and universities who divest — and along the way purge industry advocates from their board of trustees and the administration — will be free to overhaul their operations, their curriculum and their research agendas and allocate resources in a way that is commensurate with the magnitude of the climate crisis, the single greatest challenge of our time.

A second goal of divestment is to build a movement that can exert pressure on the fossil fuel industry to stop spreading misinformation and stop altering the political process. Historically, large student movements have provided an effective medium for raising the profile of important issues that aren’t receiving the attention they deserve in the wider public discourse. The anti-war movement gained early traction on college campuses, and more recently the Occupy movement demonstrated how rapidly a student movement can affect the national conversation. Marginalizing the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation and lobbying campaigns will eliminate a crucial impediment to renewables.

The only solution to the climate crisis is to lower the cost of renewable energy below that of fossil fuels, to the extent that fossil fuel reserves are no longer economically accessible. Fossil fuels are global commodities, as are solar panels: a drop in the price of solar panels in a single country will propagate to other countries across the world. Forward thinking pricing schemes for solar energy in Germany over the past decade almost singlehandedly led to the resurgence of the solar industry and an astonishing drop in prices by one half. Over the past couple of years, China has aggressively subsidized its nascent solar industry, cutting worldwide solar panel costs in half again. These price cuts are permanent, a function of manufacturing scaling laws. Imagine what could be done if the fossil fuel industry lifted its strangle hold on the political process in the US.

Myth #7: You must first green your campus

How can a college claim the moral high ground by divesting from fossil fuels while continuing to use tremendous amounts of fossil fuels in its own daily operations?

It is perfectly rational to not eliminate your own consumption while you attempt to change the system that makes it difficult to eliminate your own consumption in the first place.

Myth #8: We can’t afford to divest

In these difficult financial times, when colleges and universities are struggling to cut costs while the price of a college education is at an all time high, it is dangerous to risk the financial stability of the endowment in order to further a single political position. [Similarly, a pre-recession version of this sentiment might have read:] In an increasingly competitive field of colleges, it would be irresponsible to hog-tie our highly skilled financial managers and risk slowing the growth of our endowment, possibly putting the college at a financial disadvantage.

The misconception here begins with the fact that money managers do not simply remove investments from a portfolio — they must rebalance the portfolio by substituting stocks that behave similarly. Energy stocks tend to hold their value better in hard times, so one must find investments that do the same, which is apparently easy to do. In the end, there is essentially no difference between the two portfolios in terms of their returns.