CT Zero Energy Challenge (Part 1) – How Low Can You Go?

There were 11 projects entered into this year’s CT Zero Energy Challenge, sponsored by EnergizeCT.  The single- and multi-family homes taking part in this competition are designed and constructed utilizing innovative techniques in order to try and reach the illustrious goal of net-zero energy-use.

I’m excited to report that SWA worked with 4 of the homes entered into this year’s competition, including the first- and third-place winners! For each of the three winning projects, EnergizeCT has created a video to showcase the story behind the homes, and to highlight some of the most notable features.

Today’s video is about the first-place winner, a single-family home in South Glastonbury, CT, constructed by Glastonbury Housesmith. The owners, Carl Benker and Elizabeth Wegner are first-time homebuyers who wanted to be able to live as close to “off the grid” as possible. Check out SWA’s HERS-rater extraordinaire, Karla Donnelly, discussing the competition, and how this home came to achieve an amazing HERS Index Rating of a -23!

(Right-click and select “run this plug-in” if you cannot see the video below)

 

The project also won the 2015 RESNET Cross Border Challenge for lowest HERS score with photovoltaics (PV)!

You can read more information on SWA’s project here. 

Recalculating Solar Savings

Ten years ago, seeing a solar electric system on a building was noteworthy. Now they’re popping up everywhere. Lower cost is obviously a big driver of this solar surge; photovoltaic (or PV) system costs have dropped 50-70% in the past 10-15 years. Over the past decade, SWA has helped developers and owners install PV systems on hundreds of buildings. The systems are reliable, they have no moving parts, and they will convert sunlight to electricity for decades.

The cost effectiveness of PV, however, is not always clear. In fact, SWA has seen a concerning trend where the cost benefits of PV are exaggerated. Although costs vary with region and application, installed costs of PV are usually $3,000 – $6,000 per kWSTC.

Then there are incentives, including two key federal programs:

Photovoltaic Panels

  • 30% Federal tax credit
  • Accelerated depreciation (for businesses)

Other incentives vary greatly from region to region:

  • State, local, and utility rebates or credits
  • Sale of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs)

The Database for State Incentives for Renewable Energy (dsireusa.org) has a good summary of these regional incentives. Federal and regional incentives can easily lower PV system costs by 50% — often more.

The final piece in assessing cost effectiveness of PV is the electricity savings. With PV generating electricity for your building, you’ll obviously be paying less to the utility. But how much less? Read more

What We’re Looking Forward to at Building Energy Boston ’15

Building Energy BostonBoston has been making national headlines a lot this winter, mainly due to the #snowpocalypse that they’ve been enduring.

Never fear, the first sign of spring is about to appear in Beantown! NESEA’s Building Energy Conference is just around the corner on March 3-5, bringing experts from around the country to share their knowledge about new trends and innovative solutions within the realm of building science and renewable energy.

Road? Where we're going, we don't need roads.

Boston digs out in time for Building Energy 2015

We’re sure it will rejuvenate and reinvigorate Bostonians and all Northeasterners alike. Note: Northeasterners like the people, not northeasters like the storm, just to be clear.

As with most of the Building Energy Conferences, there will be many speakers from SWA there to lead workshops and sessions about improving the efficiency of buildings and their systems (You can read more about that here). Today though, we want to talk about the other presenters and topics that we’re excited to see!

Here are a few of our recommendations that we can’t wait to check out:

  • We have been preaching about addressing building resiliency and energy efficiency, want to hear it from another trusted voice? Attend Alex Wilson’s session Putting Attention Where it is Needed Most – Building Resiliency In Multifamily Affordable Housing.  March 4, 11am – 12:30 pm
  • Codes are raising the bar, owners are seeing the benefits of building more efficient housing and more owners are addressing energy use at the time of capital upgrades and refi, all great news. The next wave we will see is the increase in multifamily Passive House construction and renovation using techniques where possible. Want to know how to incorporate passive house to your next project, you can talk to SWA’s Lois Arena, and you can also hear it from Katrin Klingenberg at her session The Building Science of multifamily Passive House. March 4, 4pm – 5:30 pm
  • Water makes up a sizable portion of utility bills, we recommend attending Reinventing the Water Grid Part 1: Science, Behavior and Dollars. Water reduction strategies and monitoring can save money and reduce operations and maintenance costs through leak detection. We will be attending this session to reinforce what we are recommending and to see if there are new applicable techniques or recommendations we can incorporate into our projects. March 5, 10:30am – 12pm

To attend Building Energy 2015 in Boston, register here. We look forward to seeing everyone there!

The $300 Investment Every New Construction Home Should Make

Whether code built or energy efficient, if your new home has a poured concrete foundation and floor slab, please pay particular attention to the following. While older, leaky homes result in low interior moisture levels (thus the desire for humidifiers on central furnaces); newer, tighter homes will typically have relative humidity levels in the 25-50% range naturally.

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Moisture from construction materials in new homes must be managed to avoid problems like interior condensation and mold.

In some cases, there is a need to actually dehumidify to maintain relative humidity below 50% during the winter. In the first 1-2 years after the home is built, concrete foundations expel massive amounts of moisture as part of the concrete curing process called “hydration”. As the concrete cures, some of the water in the concrete mix reacts chemically with the portland cement and forms the hardened concrete, and some of the water evaporates to the surrounding air. The exterior water resistant/proof coating on the below grade portion of the foundation prevents moisture from escaping that way. Typically only a 1-2 foot tall area along the perimeter of the above-grade portion of the foundation is available for drying to the exterior.  It is more likely that the moisture will be expelled to the interior of the home and therefore, must be managed to prevent deleterious moisture-related problems such as condensation, mold, wood rot, etc.  Framing lumber also contributes: lumber that starts out kiln-dried at 18% moisture levels, will eventually end up at 6%.

How to deal with that moisture? Here is that cheap investment alluded to: an ENERGY STAR dehumidifier with a built-in humidistat.  This unit should be plumbed to a drain to allow continual operation (without having the occupants empty a bucket).  In addition, the dehumidifier should be installed in the basement or crawlspace as soon as the structure has been enclosed and power is available. In terms of the construction process, it is recommended that the foundation be the last item to be insulated to allow for the internal construction moisture to be removed prior to enclosing. After a year or two of occupancy, construction material moisture levels will become stabilized at “normal” levels. In the interim, remember to “build-tight and ventilate right”, but also manage that construction moisture.

Local Law 87 – What’s Happening and What’s Ahead

 

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Calendar year 2015 marks the start of the third year of mandatory Local Law 87 compliance in NYC. The Law—which requires buildings over 50,000 sq ft to conduct an energy audit and retro-commissioning study once a decade—has, to date, been characterized by market uncertainty and a somewhat hesitant response from the real estate community. These conditions stem largely from an unclear expectation as to what the future will hold, and what, if any, blow back there might be for being the owner of a poor-performing building.

This lack of clarity has created a wide diversity in the approach that owners opt to take in complying with Local Law 87. A notable pool of building owners, for example, have viewed the law as a burden enacted by NYC, and have opted to take the cheapest available, low-bidder approach to compliance. A large number of newly formed energy consulting firms have popped up to provide “cheapest-in-class” services, this despite the fact that many of these startup firms lack the qualifications and experience necessary to actually perform a compliant Local Law 87 project. As is almost always the case, you get what you pay for. On the other hand, a different set of building owners have viewed the law as an opportunity to improve the performance of their buildings by engaging the service of discerning engineering service providers. These owners see the value in having a 3rd party vet the operation of their buildings, as they realize that operational cost savings drop straight to the bottom line, driving improved NOI, increased asset value, while guarding against the risk of future volatility in the commodity markets.

The real estate community has, by and large, accepted Local Law 87 as a fact of life, but the lack of a clearly demonstrated vision of future goals has created a deeply fragmented understanding of how the Local Law 87 process can and will impact a building’s operation. Signs, though, are pointing toward a clarification of what this process will require into the future, and there is reason to believe that the lay of the land will be quite different in years to come. For starters, the DeBlasio administration, in the fall of 2014, issued their One City Built to Last plan. This ambitious plan provides a policy framework for achieving 80% emissions reductions in NYC by 2050—no small task, to be sure. The aggressive nature of the plan requires that the city dig deep into the performance of the built environment in order to achieve these reduction targets, as buildings account for about 70% of NYC emissions. The DeBlasio administration has taken a “carrots and sticks” approach toward compelling change and ensuring adherence to their agenda: state and local incentives have been dangled in front of the real estate community to encourage proactive adoption of energy conservation practices by building owners, while the not-so-thinly-veiled threat of future mandates loom on the horizon for those actors that fail to take appropriate action. As DeBlasio was quoted in a September Real Estate Weekly article, “For private buildings, we’ll set ambitious targets for voluntary reductions, but if steady progress is not made, we will issue clear mandates,ˮ said deBlasio, adding, “Our long-term goal is bolder still — charting a path to a full transition from fossil fuels.” Again…not so thinly veiled.

Notable carrots include limited time incentive programs, such as the Demand Management Program offered jointly by NYSERDA and ConEd, and the forthcoming establishment of a retrofit accelerator program, which will scrub Local Law 84 (benchmarking) and 87 data to facilitate engagement between key stakeholders as the City attempts to play matchmaker in a Love Connection style game of emission reduction through market transformation. Many in the real estate and sustainability arenas see great promise and opportunity in these models.

Love it or hate it, the real estate community and others need to acknowledge that the landscape is changing, and the vision of the future—at least as how Mayor DeBlasio sees it—is taking shape.
Early adopters of emissions reduction practices—e.g., buildings that participate in voluntary programs such as the Mayor’s Carbon Challenge and those that take a more rigorous approach to the Local Law 87 process—stand a better chance of avoiding the “heavy hand of government” that DeBlasio so publicly campaigned on. And they might even get to munch on a few carrots along the way.

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