Choosing Insulation for Carbon Value – Why More is Not Always Better Part 1

SWA’s Enclosure Group is acutely aware that insulation is the most important single material choice to maximize the enclosure’s thermal resistance over its operational life. Many of us in the building industry believe that, combined with a good continuous air seal, the highest insulation value makes the greenest enclosure, helping to reduce a structure’s carbon footprint and combat climate change. It may come as a surprise, then, that some of the most commonly used insulation materials are so carbon-heavy to manufacture and/or install, that for many decades they wipe away the carbon-energy savings they are supposed to provide.  The following is a detailed discussion of how and why this is, and what the industry is doing to change the equation.

Embodied vs. Operational Carbon

The built environment looms large in the climate picture, because almost 40% of the total carbon put into the planet’s atmosphere each year is attributed to buildings. Over the past 30 years of green building, we have overwhelmingly focused on operational carbon – the carbon that buildings emit as they are being used. Only recently have we begun to focus on embodied carbon – the carbon that goes into constructing buildings, which is typically far greater than the energy saved in the first decades of operation. Changes in energy codes are aimed at operational carbon, and even those organizations and standards that have been at the forefront of promoting sustainable building [LEED, PH] have not been quantifying or limiting embodied carbon, although they bring attention to it.

The Time Value of Carbon

Assuming that a building stands for many decades, or even centuries, its operational carbon will eclipse its embodied carbon over its lifetime, and therefore when the building’s carbon Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is calculated, operational carbon savings will be more important than embodied carbon saved/spent in the long run. Why does embodied carbon deserve equal weight with operational carbon? Because of the total global carbon emissions from buildings, 28% is pegged to embodied carbon. That’s already a large percentage, but when you consider the near term, the first 30 years of a building’s life, the percentage jumps to about 50%. In effect, every new building is in carbon debt upon completion due to the huge amount of carbon emitted  in order to construct it., And in order for the climate to benefit from the energy savings provided by a well-insulated and sealed enclosure and a high efficiency energy system, the building needs to last and be used for a very long time. The problem is that we may not have 30 years, let alone 60, to pay off that carbon debt.

In the first 30 years of a building’s operational life, 50% of its total carbon emissions are still due to embodied carbon (Source: Architecture 2030)

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Climate Week NYC: Seven Days of Climate Action and Discussion

 

Climate Week logoLast week, as I was writing this blog, I came across a New York Times article: “The Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia: a World of Fire.” By now, I’m sure most of us are aware that the Amazon Rainforest has been burning for weeks, but this deliberate act of environmental destruction will contribute to a feedback loop. These fires release carbon dioxide and kill the trees and species that not only remove greenhouse gasses from the air but are part of vital fragile ecosystems. As more climate-warming gasses fill the air, extreme weather patterns, drought, species loss, and global warming are exacerbated. These effects then accelerate the spread of infectious disease, global poverty, and human health defects. Overall, climate change and environmental degradation negatively affect both humans and the planet, which makes us less resilient and allows for climate change to accelerate even more aggressively. And the cycle continues.

So, for the sake of our (really wonderful) natural planet, and humankind, it is crucial that we try to hinder this feedback loop and make climate action a priority around the world. And, although individually we can try to have a more reciprocal relationship with the planet, our actions and voices carry more weight collectively, which is where Climate Week NYC comes in.

What is Climate Week NYC?

Organized by The Climate Group, Climate Week NYC is an annual week-long gathering for citizens and global leaders to join forces and take action to mitigate environmental harm caused by human activity. There will be a number of public events each day from September 23-29, including tours, film screenings, conferences, and more.

Fun fact: Swedish teenager and activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic all the way from England to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit, scheduled on the first day of Climate Week NYC!

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It’s Time to Focus on Our Schools

If you are a parent like me, I am sure you cherish your kids and seek to offer them the best opportunities in life. I even moved to a different school district. And, while the education is top-notch in my town, I have come to realize that it really doesn’t matter what school district you are in…all our schools need help. I am not talking about smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, after-school programs, and more school supplies, although those are important. School buildings need attention. With budgetary pressures, a lot of maintenance and repairs are being deferred and schools are not aging well. Whether it is repairing existing systems, replacing systems at the end of their useful life, renovating, or building a brand-new school to service your community for future generations, advocate for your Board of Education (BoE) to think holistically about improving the conditions for our children.

Why My Call to Action?

This year I was asked to join our elementary school’s Tools for Schools committee, which is tasked with implementing an indoor air quality (IAQ) management plan. This experience gave me an opportunity to get involved and provided me insight into the school’s systems and the operations and maintenance (O&M) processes that were in place.

Unfortunately, at the start of the 2018 school year, mold issues were identified in our local middle school and the building was closed. In fairness, I quickly realized that buildings were outside the BoE members’ knowledge base. Afterall, they are educators, not facility managers or building scientists. They sought outside consultants but didn’t know the right questions to ask. After some time, the BoE decided to get input from local experts in the community. Fortunately, we have several experts (including me) who were willing to volunteer their time. As part of a task force, we laid out a strategy to remediate the mold issues in the school and to implement short- and long-term repairs to minimize/eliminate water incursion and elevated moisture issues within the building.

I am not saying you must get involved at this level, but I do encourage you to attend a BoE meeting and start asking questions related to IAQ. Ask if the school has deferred maintenance needs and if/when these are being addressed in the annual budget. Ask when (if) comprehensive physical needs assessments and energy audits were performed on all school buildings. Educate yourselves; then help educate your BoE and your community on IAQ guidelines for schools. Here are some great resources:

How Can SWA Help?

In working with schools, I have learned that one of the greatest challenges school decision-makers face is not knowing where to turn for support and guidance. Steven Winter Associates, Inc. (SWA) has been working to improve educational facilities for decades. Whether you have questions related to mold, moisture, comfort, absenteeism, accessibility, high utility bills…on up to zero energy design and progressive learning environments, SWA can support you. Here is just a sample of past school projects that SWA has worked on:

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Foundation Waterproofing – Proper Installation and What NOT to do!

As mentioned in Foundation Waterproofing 101, water damage to a foundation can be very costly and difficult to repair. By paying close attention to how and where water might enter the foundation during the early stages of construction, typical failures can be avoided by following these simple guidelines…

For the Designer: Keys to proper installation

Design and Quality Assurance

  • Don’t wait to design the foundation waterproofing system after you’re already in the ground!
  • Specify and detail the appropriate system for each project. Meet with manufacturer reps early!
  • Require shop drawings and kickoff meetings to ensure the entire team understands the importance of the design! Review examples of common failures.
  • Get your consultants on board early: Geotechnical engineer, Structural engineer, Waterproofing/enclosure consultant.
  • Review warranties, require third party inspections, installer certification, and contractor training.

For the Installer: Keys to proper installation

Substrate preparation

  • Provide smooth continuous surfaces to install waterproofing – minimize jogs, protrusions, and sharp edges.
  • At slabs: compacted fill/rigid insulation board/rat slabs
  • At walls: fill bugholes, remove/grind concrete fins, mortar snots, fill form tie holes, verify form release agents and compatibility.

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Foundation Waterproofing 101

Foundation Waterproofing Cutaway

Credit: Basement Waterproofing Baltimore (2018, February 20). http://aquaguardwaterproofing.com

Designing buildings with water protection in mind is critical to protecting buildings from future damage, difficult/costly repairs, and potential litigation. Foundations are by necessity in the ground. So is water. Foundation waterproofing is intended to keep them separate, by providing a layer of protection between a below-grade structure and the moisture present in the surrounding soil and fill. Waterproofing is especially important when the foundation lies below the water table or in a flood zone. Read on to learn about different approaches and materials used to waterproof foundation walls and slabs and specific detailing needed to provide a watertight enclosure. And, check out Part 2 of this series for specific guidance and examples to achieve a watertight enclosure.

Why is foundation waterproofing necessary?

Did you know? Water intrusion makes up more than 70% of construction litigation.Water

Foundations are basically holes in the ground that want to fill with water. Poor site drainage, through-wall penetrations, concrete cracking/mortar joints and movement, door/window/vent openings, flooding, high water tables, hydrostatic pressure – all contribute to the propensity for water to fill the subterranean void we have established. Foundation leaks are difficult and costly to rectify, not to mention designer/contractor financial liability. Water in a basement is water in a building. Excess moisture within a building is a recipe for higher RH and increases the potential for condensation, and mold and other allergens.

Luckily, foundation water intrusion is usually preventable. The goal is to identify all the potential water transport mechanisms, and address them, through good design practices, proper detailing, and quality execution. Read more