Building Fundamentals: Engineering Fundamentals

This interview by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

I moved to this region about 15 years ago because I thought it would be a better place to set up a homestead. I was looking for mountain spring water and milder temperatures than my Texas home. I found both, but the longer I’ve been here, the more I’m amazed by the people who live here, especially the ones I meet in my work in the world of “green building”. For my next few columns, I’m going to interview one of these local founts of wisdom on some aspect of all things green. This month, I talked with local mechanical engineer Jeff Buscher:

You and I are old enough to remember that ancient time before “green building” was a household word. How did you first get involved in the field?

I was studying architecture and engineering at Kansas State University when I read the book “Ecotopia” in an elective philosophy class. I remember it as a turning point for me. I started focusing on energy efficient technologies and sustainable practices in whatever way I could. After graduation, I worked for a large commercial engineering firm in Dallas for a number of years. It was frustrating because I kept pushing for sensible energy efficiency measures, putting them into designs only invariably to have them taken out at some point due to shortsighted reasoning, such as short-term construction cost reductions over long-term operating cost savings, let alone considering the additional environmental benefits. I finally decided to put my money where my mouth was and move to a smaller firm identified with green principles.

 

You and I have been working together for a while and I’ve come to really value your perspective. You’re unique in my experience because you combine an expansive knowledge of complex technology and technical methods with an interest in simple technologies, such as those commonly referred to as “natural building”. Given that novel perspective, what do you see as the important issues for “green building” enthusiasts to focus on?

First of all, we’ve got to face reality. The conventional construction world is in the grip of two dangerous forces: ignorance and inertia. Ignorance because efficiency has only been a concern for one generation.  We’re all still learning the best way to do this, but frankly, many building professionals aren’t educated as to even the most basic, common sense issues of building science. Inertia because to make money and avoid getting sued it makes sense to keep doing the thing that worked the last time. In other words, the construction industry is wary of innovation and slow to change. Real innovations tend to come from small companies that are light on their feet and driven through passion to do interesting things. Even in the “green building” industry most people are content to build to code. Forget codes. Building to code is the bare minimum acceptable to avoid being fined for breaking the law. To get where we need to be, we should be building at least two times in excess of current code mandated insulation levels. By achieving that level of performance we can significantly downsize or eliminate heating and cooling systems and make zero net energy buildings financially feasible. [Note: Zero Energy Design (ZED) can be defined as designing buildings that produce as much or more energy than they use.] ZED has been possible and achieved for decades. It’s not technically all that difficult to do.  It’s rare because it requires more design effort, and with current solar prices it costs a little more up front.  However,  the long-term benefits are huge. The question today is whether we can afford not to do it.

 

ZED is just barely starting to make it onto the mainstream radar. I think to a lot of people it sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Can you shed a little light on the steps to move from conventional construction practices to ZED?

 

Well, it’s true that there is some high-tech involved, but many of the steps are old school. These concepts have been around for millennia.  First, we start with the land. Maximize what you can get from the building site and the surrounding area. Work with the sun for passive solar heating and cooling. Collect water on the site. Use as many materials from as close to the site as possible. Next, we need to stop building these light, expendable, giant boxes that pass for houses, office buildings, malls, what have you. We need more insulation and more mass. Insulation is a common concept for most people, but mass not so much. Adding heavy, dense materials (mass) adds to temperature stability and longevity of a building. This is a common approach in Europe, but we’ve missed the boat here.

 

In our climate, by creating a highly insulated building, you can drastically reduce the heating load, and by using a lot of mass you can potentially avoid mechanical cooling to keep the building comfortable. When compared to complex mechanical systems, insulation and mass are inexpensive and, once installed, they don’t require any additional input of energy to do their job. Past a certain threshold of load reduction, current “alternatives” such as solar electricity (PV), wind generators, solar hot water, and waste heat recovery start to become the sensible default solution rather than a luxury. This is where engineering becomes pivotal. Through energy modeling and integrating systems design with passive aspects of the building’s performance (insulation, mass, solar heating and cooling), we can create buildings that require only a fraction of the energy and resources to build and run compared to present common practice in this country.

 

The single variable that has the most effect on a building’s energy and resource efficiency is it’s size, so another major component of this strategy is to build smaller. Finally, we have to stop looking at our buildings as islands and start seeing them in their social context. A small, energy efficient eco-cottage is still missing the point if it’s part of a lifestyle that requires a two hour daily commute. Mixed use. Co-housing. Go local.  Live where you work.  Eat where you live. We should be designing to make driving less convenient and walking, and biking more convenient. I’m a big fan of the New Urbanism movement and recommend that people read up on it.

I’m with you on all of this, but one thing that makes me a bit nervous is our increasing dependence on complex technology. I’ve always been a do-it-yourselfer, but now I find myself spending more and more time in front of a computer whose inner workings are a complete mystery to me. That makes me fundamentally uneasy. What’s your take on the possibility of taking technology too far?

Obviously, that’s a danger. However, my personal feeling is that we need to find a way to solve our environmental problems while maintaining some level of the “comfort zone” that modern humans have become accustomed to. Technology can be a very useful tool in that context.  For example, in our climate, humidity is extreme. Around here, there is no way to create stable indoor humidity levels without some level of mechanical equipment. For me, the fun is in finding ways to limit and simplify the technology required to solve problems like this. I’m working on it, and I know others are too, so stay tuned.

 

To find out more about what Jeff thinks about, check out his blog at www.thinkorthwim.com and check out these sources of information that he recommends:

  • Walkable towns:  www.ecotownz.co.uk
  • Andrés Duany’s talk about how to avoid suburban sprawl:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ysoth-DYs78
  • ZED Architects in the UK:  www.zedfactory.com
  • Passive House Institute:  www.passivehouse.us
  • The Living Building Standard (No credits, just prerequisites.  It’s about what you did good, rather than being about what you did less bad.):  http://www.cascadiagbc.org/lbc

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