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Zero(ish) – Waste Living

In a world where everything seems to be packaged in two layers of plastic, where we are encouraged to constantly discard items to make room for new ones, and where social media drives our desire to consume the newest trends, it can seem impossible to reduce our waste. Living a zero-waste lifestyle seems almost too overwhelming. I find myself wondering, “How can I possibly reduce waste when industries target consumers to do the opposite?” and “Even if I do make changes in my own habits, is it enough to make a difference?

I struggle with the same paralyzing vastness that Jonathan Chapman mentions throughout his book Emotionally Durable Design. Paralyzing vastness describes the tendency to do nothing when a task seems too large to conquer, instead of taking smaller steps. In the past, the seemingly vast nature of zero-waste living discouraged me from doing anything beyond entry-level recycling, but I realized that minimizing my waste is something worth tackling. Therefore, I will be sharing some ideas for working towards a zero(ish)-waste lifestyle — because going from zero to one hundred, or in this case one hundred to zero can be scary — and I’ll include my experience implementing a few of the ideas myself.

WEEK ONE: Apartment Composting

In blogs and articles that speak on behalf of zero-waste living, the importance of sharing with others and asking for help getting started is most frequently emphasized. For example, my apartment complex does not offer any composting services, but the SWA office does (yay sharing!). For week one, I started composting and designated two small resealable containers — one for food waste, and another for paper towels — that are now living on my kitchen counter. I intended on utilizing these two bins throughout the week, and then bringing them to the office for a dump. If you have the ability to start your own compost bin, that’s great too.

While using paper towels throughout the week, I felt less bad about it knowing that they wouldn’t be going into the landfill, but I developed some questions: If I use the paper towel with cleaning supplies, can it be composted?… Is it worth collecting small bits of food waste when I could just eviscerate them in the garbage disposal?… Are garbage disposals bad for the environment and/or do they affect the energy utilized for wastewater treatment?

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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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Five Misconceptions about Fair Housing Act Design and Construction Compliance

From “If I comply with the building code, then I comply with the Fair Housing Act” to “Everything is adaptable, so it doesn’t need to work day one, right?” – our accessibility consultants have heard it all. Here are five of the most common misconceptions about the Fair Housing Act that we come across on a regular basis…

1.  Following the accessibility requirements of the building code will satisfy the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

Not true. Following the accessibility requirements of the building code may not always satisfy the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act. Building codes and federal laws are mutually exclusive; a building department or building official is responsible for ensuring compliance with the code – not the law. And, HUD is responsible for enforcement of the Fair Housing Act – not building codes. Meeting the requirements of one may not always satisfy the requirements of the other. There is only one code, i.e., the International Building Code (2000, 2003, and 2006 editions, with a few caveats) that are HUD-approved ‘safe harbors’ for compliance with the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act. Later editions of the code are not approved by HUD as meeting the requirements of the FHA. And, any edition of the International Building Code adopted by a local jurisdiction and edited to fit the context of the local jurisdiction is not a safe harbor for compliance. The general rule of thumb is to apply the accessible design and construction requirements of the code and the law and comply with the most stringent provision.

2.  Meeting the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act is not required at the time of design and construction. Because the Fair Housing Act permits adaptability, modifying a feature to accommodate a resident’s particular need is the best way to comply with the Fair Housing Act.

Not true. Meeting the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act at the time of design and construction is required. To say that its permissible to meet the requirements by adapting features as needed and only upon request makes the design and construction requirements of the Act meaningless. Adaptability is permitted by the law, but only after the minimum design and construction requirements are met. And, what is permitted to be adapted post construction is included in the technical standards. For example, a forward or parallel approach is required to be provided at a kitchen sink in a dwelling unit. In order to accommodate the front approach, the base cabinet must be designed to be removable, i.e., adaptable. Adaptability in this case is contemplated by the requirements for usable kitchens. On the other hand, a light switch is required by the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines to be installed below 48 inches above the finished floor. The Act does not permit the light switch to be installed higher and modified as requested. To install a light switch higher than 48 inches above the finish floor is in violation of the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines. Adaptability in this case is not contemplated or permitted by the requirements for usable kitchens.

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Electric Cars: Are They Better for Your Pocket and the Climate Right NOW?

Last week, I read a blog post from Connecticut Fund for the Environment President Curt Johnson, and he reaffirmed what I already expected: my next car will likely be an electric vehicle (EV). I currently drive a Toyota Prius hybrid, but when I bought it in 2013, the price to purchase and to operate an EV did not work out, so I chose the Prius, which has very reliably achieved 50 mpg over the last six years.

As an engineer who admittedly knows nothing about cars, I feel like the information out there on EVs is either slightly biased (i.e., published by EV manufacturers) or not transparent enough with the math to convince me. So I set out to create a blog post that was unbiased and transparent. I liked this one from Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, so hopefully I’m making it a bit more user-friendly and applicable to your current/local situation.

I just wanted to know two simple things (and admit to ignoring a long list of other factors that influence the type of car most people will choose to drive):

Number 1: At what gas price is an EV cheaper to drive per mile?

Number 2: While EV tailpipe emissions are zero, is my local electric grid clean enough that it’s a good idea, right NOW? I know my next car will be electric, I just don’t know WHEN the grid will be clean enough that it’s better for the environment for me to switch.

When I began writing this article, I had no idea what the answers would be.

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Become a Carbon Hero with Five Easy Tactics

Before you can really dig deep into the advanced design concepts of embodied carbon analysis and whole building energy modeling, you must first perform some bare minimum prep work. An easy way to get the pre-schematic plan up on its legs quickly is to add qualitative performance measures to the architect’s program study or create an Owners Project Requirements (OPR) document. For this article, “qualitative performance measures” refer to the metrics that express embodied carbon, but can also include operational energy, water, and even healthy materials.

Integrated Design Process Image An integrated design process (IDP) anchors the architectural program to performance metrics such as carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), Energy Use Intensity (EUI), and zero Energy Performance Index (zEPI). So, by completing the IDP, you’re getting the basic tools to optimize embodied carbon and operational energy use in your design:

  1. Target the early phase of the project
  2. Prepare a Carbon Hotspot and Simple Box energy analysis to compare carbon sensitivity of different schemes not limited to wall and roof construction, massing, and solar exposure.
  3. Schedule a workshop with the design team and owner to discuss findings and recommendations.
  4. Establish performance targets such as total Carbon Dioxide equivalents as a basic program requirement.
  5. Choose a compliance pathway and verify design with Life Cycle Analysis and a Whole Building Energy model.

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Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) are Coming to D.C., Are You Ready?

In January of this year, the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 was signed into law, establishing minimum Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) for existing buildings. The law requires all private buildings over 50,000 square feet to benchmark energy use and demonstrate energy performance above a median baseline beginning January 1, 2021. If a building does not score above the median performance, it has five years to demonstrate improvement or face financial penalties.

While quite a few of the details on enforcement are still being worked out, the median scores will be based on 2019 building performance and there are actions you can take today to get ready for BEPS.

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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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Recent Developments in Off-Shore Wind Energy Production and Renewable Energy Storage

Image of off shore windmills

Block Island Wind Farm, courtesy of the US Department of Energy[1]

Overview

There have been several local and global developments recently with regards to off-shore wind turbines. Advancements in energy storage from both wind and solar energy, coupled with the increased rate of adoption of wind turbines could serve as a major step towards a more renewable-based energy grid and a more sustainable future.

Updates on Energy Production

First, let’s explore some recent news surrounding the adoption of off-shore wind turbines. On a global scale, Scotland’s Hywind project recently proved that technology developed for and by the oil drilling industry can be successfully applied to off-shore wind turbines.[2] The floating 30 MW wind farm, made up of five turbines off the Aberdeenshire coast, has been operational since October 2017. During a three-month period of stormy conditions from November 2018 to January 2019, the wind farm managed to continue energy production at 65% of their maximum capacity. Note that during this period, a North Atlantic hurricane produced swells up to 27 feet! Over the course of a year  “maximum capacity” is approximately 135 GWh of electricity- or enough to power 20,000 Scottish homes. To ensure that the turbines can withstand weather events on that scale, the floating turbines are ballasted by 5,000 tons of iron ore, and 1,323 tons of chain anchor it to the seafloor. This off-shore farm proves that wind turbines can be successfully deployed in deeper waters where it would be increasingly expensive to extend the physical structure of the turbine tower to the seafloor. Additionally, the US, UK, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, France, and South Korea all have started to piggyback off the success of the Hywind farm in various ways. For instance, South Korea partnered with the Equinor, the primary backer of Hywind, to conduct a feasibility study for a 200 MW farm that would be located off the coast of Ulsan.[3][4][5][6]

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Top 10 Accessible Design Oversights: Hotels

Our Accessibility Team works on a wide variety of project types across the country, and each comes with its own unique set of challenges. It is common for even our most experienced accessibility consultants to encounter a design problem we have never seen before. However, there are also recurring issues that we see crop up again and again and again; common accessible design oversights that are not difficult to avoid if accounted for early enough in the design process.

In this post, we dive into the top ten accessible design oversights that our consultants find in…Hotels.

1. Dispersion of Accessible Guest Rooms

Guest rooms required by the ADA to include mobility features must be dispersed among the various classes of guest rooms provided. Accessible rooms need to provide guests with the same range of choice afforded to guests without a disability. Often, designers select one or two room types to meet the minimum number of accessible guest rooms required by the ADA (e.g., a King room and a Double Queen room) while failing to account for other room types and amenities. For example, if a hotel provides multi-room suites, king rooms, double rooms, rooms with couches or seating areas, rooms with kitchenettes, etc., then the number of required accessible rooms must be distributed among each of those room classes. Other factors to consider when dispersing accessible rooms include view, floor level, price, bathroom fixtures like hot tubs, or other amenities provided to guests. Only when a hotel contains more room classes than the number of accessible guest rooms required are you permitted to have rooms classes without an accessible equivalent. In this case, you still must disperse the accessible guest rooms in the priority of guest room type, number of beds, and then amenities.

2. Required Rooms without Roll-in Showers

When designing bathrooms for accessible guest rooms, many designers overlook the fact that there are a specific number of rooms required to provide roll-in showers, and a specific number that cannot include roll-in showers (i.e., the accessible bathing fixture must be a bathtub or transfer shower). We frequently review plans where all accessible guest rooms are designed with roll-in showers. Older codes and standards focused on ensuring that a minimum number of roll-in showers were provided, but they did not limit that number. As a result, hotels could be designed with all accessible guest rooms containing roll in showers; however, that is no longer the case under the current requirements. Despite common misconceptions, a roll-in shower is not necessarily the best bathing option for all guests. The variety of bathing fixtures required by the 2010 ADA Standards accommodates the needs of people with a range of disabilities.

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What the Climate Mobilization Act Means for Developers, Designers, and Construction Teams

Image of central park and New York City buildigns

The construction industry has been increasingly focused on meeting ever-tightening codes and achieving higher ratings in sustainability certification programs (e.g., LEED, Passive House, etc.). These standards do a good job of raising the bar, but there is a new bar in town and we’re not talking about whiskey.

Local Law 97

NYC’s Local Law 97 of 2019 establishes carbon emissions limits for buildings 25,000 square feet and larger. These emissions limits, which are based on current building performance data, will begin in 2024 and will rachet down in 2030 and beyond. While we continue to work with building owners and portfolio managers of existing buildings (“What Does the Climate Mobilization Act Mean for Building Owners?”), we need to make sure that new buildings and major renovations are set up for success. Developers, designers, and construction teams must take LL97 into account during design, construction and turnover to protect the value of these new assets.

A developer or asset manager’s least favorite word is probably uncertainty, and now there’s a whole new host of uncertainties to think about:

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