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Interesting Elements: A Modeling View on Net Zero Homes

I recently performed some net zero energy modeling on a single-family home for work. Around the same time, I got to chatting with my neighbor (mindful of social distancing) and when I mentioned net zero,  he said, “Is that even possible?” AH! Get the word out. We have the means to offset our home energy use. What follows are the basics to consider when trying to fully offset home energy along with a breakdown of how different upgrades can affect energy use.

There are lots of resources available on how to reduce home energy use. You can look at program requirements and guidelines like the Zero Energy Ready Program or Passive House. Through modeling I will demonstrate how the energy use numbers change and describe what we have seen in real-world examples of net zero homes. Net zero is not new and we’ll be looking at some specific pieces of single family home modeling.

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How to Talk Windows with a Passive House Nerd

Before we get into this topic, please take a few seconds to consider the following questions:

  • Do you plan to work, or have you ever worked, on a Passive House building? (If not, the rest of your answers are probably no.)
  • Has your Passive House consultant ever told you that the window U-Value you provided “won’t work in their energy model?”
  • Has your Passive House consultant ever told you that your window “doesn’t meet the comfort criteria?”
  • Have you ever scratched your head when someone asked you to provide the “Psi-spacer” for your window?

If you answered yes to two or more of these queries, please read on. If not, you’ll still learn some useful information, so why not continue?

If you’re still reading, then you are probably somewhat familiar with a “U-Value” and you may know what “SHGC” means. If not, no worries. This article will explain both, and by the end you’ll be able to talk about these terms with most Passive House nerds.

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The 3 Most Important Design and Construction Considerations for Senior Living Facilities

Last year, a young New Zealand lawmaker shut down a fellow member of parliament who was heckling her climate change speech with two words: “OK, Boomer.” This simple phrase started an online wildfire and ignited a conversation about the generation known as “baby boomers.” Born just after World War II, this demographic represents a period of growth, hope, and prosperity. The building, real estate, and senior housing industry has been thinking about the boomer generation for a while now. Between the years 1946 and 1964, 76 million babies were born. Every day until 2030, 10,000 of these individuals will turn 65, which means they will likely be retiring, and eventually considering how and where they want to age. This poses the question: how are we going to meet the growing demand for housing and care for this population?

image of senior couple holding hands and walking

Important Considerations for Senior Living

Whether you or someone you love is considering staying in their home as they age or moving into a senior living facility, there are a few important factors to keep in mind. SWA services for senior living revolve around the following three factors:

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Net Zero and Electrification

Net zero” can mean a lot of different things depending on what you choose to measure – zero energy usage, zero carbon emitted, zero lifecycle impact, etc.

At Steven Winter Associates, Inc. (SWA), we work with clients who are approaching net zero from different angles: driven by institutional goals, climate concerns, marketing campaigns, and connecting with municipal emissions targets. One thing we see over and over is that super high performance is difficult to achieve, but with a key simplification – there are not many ways to do it. All roads may lead to Rome but the closer you get, the fewer roads there are to take.

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Passive House: An Alternative Compliance Path to Toronto Green Standard Tier 3

It is clear to see that the Passive House (PH) standard is here to stay! Across North America, more States, Provinces, and Municipalities are integrating PH into their building standards. One of the more recent adopters is the City of Toronto. In the most recent version of the Toronto Green Standard (TGS), the PH standard is offered as an alternative compliance path to TGS Tier 3, and with this alternative compliance path one obvious question comes to mind: What is the major difference in required component efficiency for a multifamily building in Toronto that is looking to meet either the PH standard or TGS Tier 3?

The PH standard is performance-based and is focused on decreasing whole building energy demand, improving building durability, providing optimal occupant thermal comfort, improving indoor air quality, and reducing carbon emissions. The PH standard reduces building operation costs, decreases carbon emissions, and supports an improved indoor environmental quality for building occupants. The TGS has similar goals and benefits when compared to the PH standard, and there are some obvious synergies in the program design between TGS and PH. The tiered energy category in the TGS takes a similar approach to PH by offering an annual budget for three different categories. For PH you must comply with a total energy budget for annual heating demand, annual cooling demand, and total source energy use intensity. Similarly, but slightly differently, the TGS offers a budget for total site energy use intensity (TEUI), annual heating demand or Thermal Energy Demand Intensity (TEDI), and the additional category of Greenhouse Gas Intensity (GHGI). In both standards, the path to compliance is non-prescriptive and designers can implement a variety of component efficiencies and system options. See table 1 and 2 below:

 

Image of passive house criteria standards

Table 1: Passive House Standard Criteria

Second image of passive house criteria

Table 2: Toronto Green Standard Tier 3 Criteria

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10 Ways to Enjoy a Festive AND Sustainable Holiday Season

Between gift shopping and trying to keep up the holiday spirit with decorations at home, it can be frustrating to try to remain sustainable. It may feel as though you’re forced to choose between enjoying the holidays and feeling guilty about putting up all those lights around your tree.

Here are 10 ways you can have a festive holiday and feel better about it too:

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The Keys to Commissioning with Kelly Westby

As code requirements become more stringent around the country, the process of commissioning is more valuable now than ever before. Acting as third-party quality assurance providers, commissioning agents help building owners by improving the quality of construction and reducing maintenance and energy costs in the long run.

On this episode, Robb interviews podcast co-host, Kelly Westby, who is also SWA’s Commissioning Director. Kelly explains the importance of quality control on any project and describes how commissioning has evolved into a process, rather than a one-off measure.

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The Making of the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)

When I first started working at Steven Winter Associates, I didn’t know that one day I’d find myself involved in the development of codes and standards that impact how our buildings get built. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I have learned a few things the hard way and thought they’d be worth sharing if you might be new to it.

So, here’s my very high-level summary of the code development process with respect to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), aka the “model” energy code. If you are looking for more detail, the ICC webpage has plenty of resources and a more detailed infographic than the one we’re showing and discussing here.

IECC Code Development Process Chart

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Call to Action: Voting Open Until December 6th on the Changes Proposed to the 2021 IECC

ICYMI: The code change proposals for the 2021 IECC are open for voting by Governmental Member Voting Representatives (GMVR) from Monday, November 18th through Friday, December 6th, and your vote is instrumental in making buildings consume less energy! [Need a quick refresher on the code process? Check out our blog post here!]

Does your vote even matter?

Overall, there are not actually that many voters on a given proposal. In the energy proposals, last cycle, it ranged from about 200-400 voters per proposal, even though there were a total of 1,247 voters on the Group B codes, which includes the IECC.

IECC voting numbers

So a small handful of voters can entirely shape the future of the energy codes that dictate how energy efficient our buildings will be! If history repeats itself, while some online voters tend to align with the Committee, many online voters align their votes with those cast by their fellow ICC voters at the Public Comment Hearings. This happened 81% of the time in 2016. Unlike 2016, in this cycle all the electronic votes cast during the Public Comment Hearings will be rolled into the online vote tally (although those voters can still change their vote).

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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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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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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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Electrify Everything? Part 2.

Heat Pump Water Heaters in Multifamily Buildings

In Electrify Everything? Part 1 that I wrote several months ago, I mentioned that integrated tank heat pump water heaters (HPWHs) can work well in single family homes — even in colder climates. For example, we see quite a few installed successfully in basements in the Northeast. These devices remove heat from the surrounding air, so there needs to be enough heat in the basement air for them to work effectively. During the winter, a home’s space heating system probably needs to work harder to make up for the HPWH. In the summer, the HPWH provides a bit of extra cooling and dehumidification. We put together some guidelines a few years ago on how to get the most from these systems in single family homes.

Image of heat pump

Some places where I’ve seen problems:

  •   Installing a HPWH in a basement closet. Even if a closet has louvered doors, there’s not enough heat/air for a HPWH to work well.
  • HPWHs are relatively loud. If there’s a finished part of the basement (e.g., bedroom or office), the noise can be disruptive.
  • Sometimes there is trivial heat gain to the basement (from outdoors, mechanical equipment, etc.). When a HPWH removes heat from the air, such a basement can quickly become too cold for the water heater to work efficiently (and too cold for comfort if someone uses the basement).

But overall, HPWHs in single family basements can work effectively.

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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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Rapidly Changing Brooklyn Neighborhood Welcomes Affordable and Sustainable Housing Development

image of Livonia Apartments

Courtesy of MAP Architects

The Livonia Apartments is Phase II of an affordable sustainable housing development in the rapidly changing neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn. Through a partnership with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP), BRP Companies and partners developed this mixed-use, four-building complex to provide 292 apartments of both affordable and supportive housing, including 10% of units specified for persons with disabilities and municipal employees. In addition, Livonia II provides 30,000 square feet of community and retail space for the neighborhood.

The size and density of The Livonia Apartments project represented an opportunity to set a higher benchmark in green design strategies. Mayor Bill di Blasio stated at the groundbreaking, “For decades these vacant lots have been a blight on this neighborhood. Today, we’re breaking ground on a project that will deliver the affordable housing, good local jobs and vital services this community needs. We believe in a city where every neighborhood rises together, and where we make investments that give more people a shot at a better life.” Although the development straddles the busy elevated L & 3 trains and the Livonia Ave. station, the buildings’ facades are angled to minimize the sound and rattle from the trains, while maximizing privacy and natural light.

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The First Certified Passive House in Southeast Asia – Star Garments Innovation Center

Following up on our blog post in August 2018 – Just Your Typical Blower Door Test… in Sri Lanka – Star Garment Innovation Center – we have exciting news coming out of Sri Lanka. The Star Garments Innovation Center is now officially certified as a Pilot EnerPHit building, the building retrofit standard under the Passive House Institute (PHI).

EnerPHit logo with project details

EnerPHit certification for this project is a milestone achievement on many levels. The Innovation Center is now the first certified Passive House in Southeast Asia and one of only a handful of certified PH projects in tropical climates. PHI deemed the project “a milestone in industrial energy efficient retrofitting in a tropical monsoon climate.” Many of the passive measures employed at the Innovation Center, including continuous exterior insulation, highly efficienct windows, variable refrigerant flow heat pumps for cooling with wrap around heat pipe for enhanced dehumidification capacity, and balanced ventilation with heat recovery can be utilized across all future construction projects in tropical climates. The Passive House team here at SWA is excited to see the potential growth in tropical-climate Passive House construction as a result of the Innovation Center’s success.

But what good is certification if the building doesn’t perform as well as the energy model predicts? Well, we have exciting news on this front too!

At the very start of SWA’s involvement in the project back in the summer of 2016, SWA conducted a utility analysis of the base building prior to any renovations to predict and later verify the energy savings of the Innovation Center by designing to the PH standard. Once the energy model was developed, SWA predicted approximately 50% in energy savings when compared to the previous building’s energy bills.

Fast forward to Fall of 2018 and the building has now been occupied for a full year. The two inevitable questions are:

  1. How much energy is the Innovation Center saving as compared to the previous building?
  2. How does the modeled energy use for the Innovation Center compare to what it is actually using after a full year of occupancy?

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Is It Too Late to Start On My Local Law 87 Compliance for 2019?

Before there was a Green New Deal in New York City, there was Local Law 87, which requires an energy audit and retro-commissioning report to be conducted and filed every 10 years. Yes, it still applies, and yes it will help you to understand the most cost-effective retrofits and upgrades to target for compliance with the city’s new energy efficiency requirements. Thanks for asking!

The question we get most this time of year from owners in NYC is, “My building is due for LL87 compliance this year, is it too late to start?!”

Image of Commercial BuildingsAs spring arrives, building owners often realize that time is quickly running out and this is the year that they must submit their building. Compliance with NYC’s LL87 (Local Law 87) can be overwhelming and hard to navigate but we are here to help.

Not sure if you have to file?  Check here.

LL87 requires that a building undergo an energy audit and retro-commissioning of major mechanical equipment. Keep in mind that it takes time to perform the inspections and testing. In fact, your best bet is to start in the year before your deadline, leaving yourself plenty of time for planning, budgeting, and implementing any corrections that may be required.

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What Does NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act Mean for Building Owners?

Image of Existing Buildings in NYC

On April 18th, Introduction 1253-2018 was approved by the New York City Council along with several other major pieces of legislation as part of a Climate Mobilization Act. The Urban Green Council describes it as “arguably the most disruptive in our lifetime of the NYC real estate industry.” We agree. While it will take some time to more precisely gauge impact across the industry, here is an initial primer.

Update: On May 18th Intro 1253 was passed into law as Local Law 97 of 2019.

Context

Previous building energy legislation in NYC has focused primarily on providing the market with access to information in the form of benchmarking and audits. In response to increasing demands for more urgent climate action, this new local law will actually require energy performance levels – and significant retrofits in some cases – in most existing buildings over 25,000 square feet between now and 2030 and deeper reductions beyond 2030.

How Does Local Law 97 Work?

The law establishes targets for carbon-emissions intensity per square foot for buildings based on occupancy class. For instance, multifamily buildings, office buildings, schools, and storage facilities will have different intensity targets. Mixed-use buildings will have their targets set based on a weighted average of their different spaces. Across all segments, these targets will get ratcheted down over time. Building on the type of data submitted as part of annual benchmarking, all tenant and owner energy used at a particular building will be converted to carbon intensity per square foot.

Starting in 2024, buildings will be fined on an annual basis for carbon footprint that exceeds their targets. Based on their performance today, approximately 20% of buildings exceed the 2024 – 2029 targets while approximately 75% of buildings exceed the 2030 – 2034 targets, according to the City Council’s press release. As an alternative to this performance-based framework, rent regulated multifamily buildings with at least one rent stabilized apartment will be required to implement a prescriptive list of upgrades by 2024. These upgrades include indoor temperature sensors providing feedback to boilers and apartment thermostatic controls.

What Will It Mean to the Market?

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Benefits of Water Metering and Water Monitoring

Water monitoring can quickly become a building owner’s best friend. The high cost of water bills can often overshadow the cost of fuel and electricity bills, but ownership and management often believe that the price of their water bill is simply something to deal with. Many building owners pay the water bill for the entire building directly to their local utility without being aware of what’s going on inside their building or what they’re actually paying for. After all, without water monitoring, how would they know?

Water monitoring can impact an owner’s bottom line due to the high costs of leaks, which are more pervasive than you’d think.

Types of Leaks

Image of toilet with components labeled

Source: http://michaelhannan.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/diagram-of-digestive-system-in-hindi-toilet-bowl-parts-tank-repair.jpg

While any water fixture can contribute to leaks and high water bills, toilets are typically the worst offenders. In toilets, rubber flappers can wear out, a flapper connected to the flush handle can have an incorrectly sized chain interfering with the seal, float mechanisms on the flush valve can be set too high causing the water level to go just above the overflow tube, or there can be tenant tampering.

Showers and sinks can also start leaking at any time. While typically at much lower capacities, these leaks can actually be easier to detect. By monitoring the water consumption in a building and observing hourly usage overnight, you can identify patterns that can quickly indicate a leak, eliminating the need to visually inspect all water fixtures in a building to determine the cause.

Cost of Leaks

The idea that a single leak can last for an entire year may seem unreasonable, though the sad truth is many leaks can go undetected and/or unreported. To put water leaks into perspective, the chart below from the NYC DEP details the potential extent of leaks and their costs on a daily and yearly basis:

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ERV + AHU?

Everyone pretty much gets that continuous (or very frequent) ventilation is necessary in high-performance homes. And – at least in theory – most people get why balanced, heat recovery ventilation is better (than unbalanced and/or without heat recovery). But the devil’s in the details.

A couple years ago we started an R&D project with funding from DOE’s Building America program, and one of the first steps was interviewing several developers about ventilation (single- and multi-family residential, mostly on the East Coast). For none of these developers were HRVs or ERVs standard.[i] They all had some experience with ERVs, however, and when asked about these experiences the word “nightmare” came up shockingly often.

The ERVs on the market now can certainly work well in the right application, but we see problems more often than not. One of the biggest challenges is trying to add ERVs on to central heating/cooling systems in homes. Most ERVs aren’t really designed for this, and here’s what we see:

  • Ducts connected to the wrong places! Outlet and inlet ducts get reversed, or the supply air from the AHU getting exhausted (sad how often this happens).
  • ERVs are attached to supply and/or return trunks of the AHU. Unless the AHU fan is running constantly (or whenever the ERV is turned on), outdoor air comes into the AHU and is sucked right back out the ERV exhaust.
  • If the AHU fan is turned on, the relatively small fans in the ERV can’t successfully compete with the big AHU fan. People don’t get the ventilation flow rates they want and/or the flows are very unbalanced.
  • AHU fans can use A LOT of electricity. Hundreds of Watts is common – I’ve measured over 1 kW (though this is changing – more below).

Even if installers follow manufacturer instructions for attaching ERVs to AHUs, they could still end up with low flows, unbalanced flows, or high electricity consumption. Through this DOE R&D effort, we’re trying to do better.
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Here’s What the Clean Energy DC Act Means for Existing Buildings in the District

Mayor signing legislationDistrict of Columbia Mayor, Muriel Bowser, signed a landmark piece of legislation known as the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act this past Friday. With the mayor’s signing, Washington, DC becomes one of the first jurisdictions in the country with a binding, comprehensive law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “It allows us to make significant improvements to the energy efficiency of existing buildings in the District,” Mayor Bowser said at the signing ceremony.

The new law has several sections which will impact the buildings in which DC residents and businesses live and work. In this post, we’re going to focus on Title III of the Clean Energy Omnibus Amendment Act, which is designed to make the city’s existing buildings more efficient.

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The Top 10 Party Walls Posts of 2018!

2018 has been a year to remember for SWA’s Party Walls blog. Our consultants have shared their passion for high performance buildings by recounting stories from the field and providing information, new findings, and best practices to improve the built environment.

Whether discussing topics based in New York City or Southeast Asia, here are our fan favorites from 2018…

Collage of blog images

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Looking for a Fast Payback by Installing a Dedicated Domestic Hot Water System? You May Want to Look Elsewhere

Installing a dedicated domestic hot water (DHW) plant is a common energy conservation measure (ECM) in the New York City multifamily market. According to Local Law 87 data, approximately 80% of the audited multifamily floor area uses steam heating boilers to produce domestic hot water.[1] A recent SWA analysis of data from steam buildings with tankless coils that implemented this ECM suggests that auditors may want to think twice about recommending this measure widely.

Two unsupported arguments are typically made in favor of installing a dedicated DHW system.

  1. A new condensing boiler or water heater (we will just say “water heater” here for simplicity and to distinguish the dedicated system from the heating boiler) will operate at a very high efficiency.
  2. Scotch marine steam boilers are inherently inefficient and are plagued with high standby losses. Large Scotch marine boilers fire to meet small DHW loads, and correctly sizing a new dedicated water heater will eliminate short cycling.

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Linkageless Burner Retrofits for Steam Boilers

Going Beyond Carburetor Technology in the NYS Market

Fun Fact #1: Space heating and domestic hot water generation represent two of the greatest energy end uses in New York State.

Fun Fact #2: More than 70 percent of all New York City buildings utilize steam for space heating.

Background

The clear majority of the distribution systems in these NYC buildings are supplied by high mass steam boiler plants. Digging down a bit further, it is important to note that the most common air:fuel control for these boilers is a mechanical linkage that connects a single servo motor to both the combustion air damper and the fuel control valve(s). We know that adjusting one part of the linkage’s movement affects fuel and air rates elsewhere in the range, making accurate adjustment difficult. We also know that modern linkageless controls use separate servo motors to operate the fuel control valves, combustion air damper, and (in some cases) the flue damper, allowing for finer control.

mechanical linkage system and linkageless system

In fact, SWA recently completed a demonstration study (partially funded through NYSERDA’s Advanced Building Program) to evaluate linkageless burner retrofits on two buildings with respect to energy savings and carbon reductions, as well as qualitative or non-energy benefits. The retrofit materials were funded by Preferred Utilities Manufacturing Corp. of Danbury, CT, who also provided manufacturer’s technical support. The study also focused on quantifying the seasonal efficiency of intermediate-sized, high mass steam boiler plants, which had not previously been studied. The demonstration addresses this gap in the industry’s knowledge.

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Over Pressure (Part Two)

Welcome back! In Part One we talked about how steam pressure gets too much attention. Controlling pressure for its own sake should never be the end goal—steam pressure is just a means to an end. In this post we’ll discuss one way that controlling steam pressure can be useful—where it can help you balance the system, control the temperature, and yes, save energy.

Two-pipe Steam

The biggest issue plaguing two-pipe steam heating systems are steam traps. Steam traps are supposed to do just that—trap steam—keeping the pressurized steam on the supply side of the system and allowing air and water (i.e., condensate) to pass through into the returns. Keeping the supplies and returns separate is critical, but steam traps are too failure prone to accomplish this reliably.

Radiator steam “trap” failed open

Radiator steam “trap” failed open

At the start of any heating cycle, the system is full of air, which must be removed for steam to enter the heaters. In most two-pipe systems, the steam pushes the air out of the heaters, through the traps, and into the return piping where it eventually exits the system through a vent in a vacuum or condensate tank. That’s what happens when the traps are working. But a failed open trap is no trap at all. It lets the steam flow into the return piping and, with pressure on both the supply and return sides, air is trapped in the system. This affects those farthest from the boiler—the heaters near the ends of the mains and on the top floors—the most.  (And with air trapped inside keeping the metal cold, are they even heaters?)

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Here’s to Our Buildings, Our Health! SWA’s Top 10 Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment – Part 1

How many of you out there would say you are happy at your place of work? Are you having a hard time concentrating? Now, take a pulse on your surroundings. Are the lights too bright? Are you too cold? Too hot? Do you hear constant humming from the HVAC equipment in the background? How much sleep are you getting at night? How many plants are in your view? Do you even have a view?

I’m sure many of you have heard the statistics that we spend nearly 90% of our days indoors. BUT, did you know that:

  • 75% of deaths are caused by chronic disease, up from 13% in 1800;
  • Today’s children are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents;
  • 85% of the 82,000 chemicals in use are lacking in available health data.

When we hear the term “high performance building,” many of us think about energy efficiency first. But, what factors contribute to human health in buildings? How do we design for and maintain efficient building performance without compromising occupant health and well-being? What benefits are associated with healthy homes and work spaces? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves.

Stok report breaking down the cost savings associated with healthy work spaces

Lots of research has been done. Pulling from the LEED, EGC, and WELL concepts, and supported by case studies (specifically Harvard’s School of Public Health’s 9 Foundations and Stok’s report on how workspaces that promote health and wellness), here are SWA’s Top 5 (of 10) tips to effectively address Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in buildings:

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Electrify Everything? Part 1

So in utility and policy circles, electrification is all the rage. Grid electricity is getting cleaner (i.e. resulting in lower CO2 emissions), on-site renewables are taking off (sometimes even with storage), and heat pump technologies are getting better. More regional and utility initiatives are encouraging building owners/designers/developers to forego onsite fossil fuels entirely (or at least mostly) to help meet CO2 emission reduction goals. But is electricity really more sustainable than natural gas? Is it cheaper? Which is better, really?

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How to Implement an Efficient Lighting Strategy in a Multifamily Passive House

Walking the aisle of your favorite home improvement store, you’ll notice the wide array of options for very efficient light fixtures. Don’t be fooled – truly efficient lighting design is achieved through thoughtful layout and proper controls.

Hallway lightingA high performance building warrants an efficient lighting strategy. With so many efficient LED fixtures available on the market, individual fixture efficiency is rarely an issue. However, these fixtures are often placed in high concentrations or at a higher wattage than necessary to adequately illuminate a space. The result is high lighting power density (LPD), which is measured by dividing the total light fixture wattage in a room by the square footage of that room. Even with controls such as occupancy or vacancy sensors, high LPDs are especially energy intensive in frequently occupied common areas, e.g., corridors and lobbies of multifamily buildings, impacting the bottom line efficiency of all buildings.

Projects pursuing Passive House certification are impacted by an optimized lighting scheme more so than a code-built building. As the heating and cooling energy used in a Passive House building decreases due to an excellent thermal envelope, the ratio of lighting energy used increases. Reducing lighting energy use can drastically improve the building’s overall primary energy demand. (more…)

Smart Buildings

The buildings where we live, work, and play are getting smarter. Even our refrigerators can tell us if we need to buy more cheese while we are at the grocery store. But that’s not what this episode is about. Mostly not.

Today we are talking to David Unger, Founder of Sentient Buildings and an expert in the strategic implementation of IoT technologies that help to create smarter buildings. In an era of data overload, David discusses how his work aims to consolidate and simplify access to information that can improve the efficiency, comfort, and operations of buildings. He also explains why leveraging open communication protocols is the most critical piece to future-proofing your smart building.  (more…)

Improving the Efficiency of Your Single-Family Home

Buying a home can be overwhelming. There are many factors that need to be considered and decisions that need to be made. For many Americans, aesthetics often outweigh certain characteristics critical to a home’s success, such as health, comfort, and efficiency.

To help us evaluate these critical characteristics, we’ve asked SWA’s COO and Mechanical Engineer, Srikanth Puttagunta, to walk us through his recent home-buying experience. Sri discusses ways to maximize a home’s value by taking advantage of incentives, enhancing existing infrastructure, and making the key decisions that may benefit your family’s health and comfort for years come. Join us as we dive into the essentials of single-family home ownership.  (more…)

Getting The Most From Heat Pumps

Air-source heat pumps (ASHPs) are a booming business. In the Northeast, manufacturers report that sales of residential systems have increased by 25-35% per year over the past 5-10 years. We’ve seen more and more systems being installed in all types of buildings.

On this episode of Buildings and Beyond, Kelly sits down with her co-host and Principal Mechanical Engineer, Robb Aldrich, to uncover the potential benefits associated with ASHPs and how to get the most from these systems. (more…)

Just Your Typical Blower Door Test… in Sri Lanka – Star Garment Innovation Center

As the number of projects pursuing Passive House certification increases, so does the demand for whole building blower door tests. And so, performance of recent blower door tests took us to uncharted territory, not only for SWA, but for the Passive House Standard.

Rendering of Star Garment Facility

 

Working remotely with a project team across the globe, the Passive House team at SWA was tasked with retrofitting an outdated factory in Katunayake, Sri Lanka, into a Passive House certified garment manufacturing facility. Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture (JPDA) recruited SWA to provide technical assistance to the project team. Responsibilities for this project included Passive House design analysis and recommendations, mechanical design review, energy and thermal bridging modeling, and the testing and verification necessary to achieve certification from the Passive House Institute (PHI).

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The Results Are in from the NYC Ice Box Challenge!

On April 21, 2018, two blocks of ice weighing exactly one ton each were placed into what appeared to be identical sheds in Times Square. The purpose? To measure how much each block would melt over a 30-day period, ultimately demonstrating the efficacy of Passive House construction methods.

The first shed, or Ice Box, was built to meet current NYC Building Code standards, which lack stringent requirements for building envelope performance. The second was constructed using building principles adopted from the Passive House Standard, including the utilization of high performance building materials, a superior airtight building envelope with advanced insulation, and triple-pane windows.

Graphic of Iceboxes

After 30 days of exposure, the Ice Boxes were publicly unveiled, and the results were exactly what building professionals had anticipated. The block of ice contained in the Ice Box constructed to NYC Building Code resulted in a final weight of 126 pounds, while the block of ice within the Passive House Ice Box weighed an astonishing 756 pounds, retaining 42% of its mass!

So, What Did We Learn… (more…)

Reducing Air Leaks in Multifamily Buildings (and why you should care)

If there was ever a silver bullet when it comes to best practices in multifamily buildings, air sealing would be it. Compartmentalization – or air sealing each unit to prevent infiltration between units and to the exterior – addresses many major issues we see in buildings.

Better HEALTH

  • Air sealing is the best strategy to keep pests out and limit their movement within a building.
  • Air carries a lot of moisture, so eliminating air leaks helps keep buildings dry and reduces the risks of mold and water damage.
  • Compartmentalization prevents contaminated air from garages, basements, attics, and other undesirable sources from entering living spaces.

Improves COMFORT

  • Air sealing reduces drafts and eliminates hot and cold spots.
  • Limiting air transfer from one unit to the next reduces transmission of noise, smoke, and odor between units.

Wastes less ENERGY

  • Air sealing lowers heating and cooling bills maintaining a more consistent indoor temperature.
  • Compartmentalization improves the performance of ventilation and mechanical systems by limiting pathways for stack effect – the force of warm air from low to high – to occur in larger buildings.

How to Air Seal Multifamily Units

It’s important to remember to create a complete air barrier around the entire cube of a multifamily unit, not just to the exterior – any and all penetrations need to be sealed.

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Sustainable Spaces for Seniors

Panelists and organizers at the “Sustainable Spaces for Seniors: Design for Aging and the Environment” event at Hafele’s NYC Showroom

On May 1st, 2018, Steven Winter, founder and chairman of Steven Winter Associates (SWA), and Harold Bravo, Accessibility Consulting Director at SWA, moderated an event at the Hafele Showroom to discuss senior housing in New York City and its relation to accessible and sustainable design. The event was organized jointly by the AIANY Design for Aging Committee (DFA) and the AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE).

A panel of experts presented perspectives from architecture, real estate development, and municipal government, and discussed the challenges of designing sustainable, comfortable, accessible, and healthy buildings for the aging population in New York City. The panel included Kleo J. King (Deputy and General Counsel, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities), Isaac Henderson (Development Director, L+M Development Partners), Jack Esterson (Design Partner, Think! Architecture+Design), and Rich Rosen, AIA, LEED AP (Principal, Perkins Eastman).

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Trying to Be Rational in an Irrational World

Think about the last time you went looking for a new car. What did you look for? I am guessing you started with your needs for a vehicle. Are you looking for a large car/SUV to move a lot of people or equipment, a car for commuting to work, or something to enjoy on the weekends? Next you probably were interested in the looks of the vehicle because it is a large investment and you should like what you drive. I am guessing you glanced at the miles per gallon (mpg) of the car. You even likely went online to see reviews from others on the comfort, crash test rating, and typical maintenance issues of the car. Of course, you will need to look at the sticker price. I am even assuming you asked to test drive the vehicle to make sure that the information that you obtained aligns with how you perceive the vehicle.

Image of animated home Now, what if I told you that you must make that vehicle purchase decision only based on the dimensions of the car, the features (radio, A/C, seat controls, etc.) of the car, some pictures of the interior, and the price. Do you think you could decide on which car you would want? My guess is that you would say I am crazy and that you wouldn’t make the decision on such a pricey purchase with so little information. But, that is exactly what millions of people do when making a significantly more expensive purchase… a home.

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Can you do a HERS Rating on an apartment in a 30-story building? Not now, but maybe in 2019!

ANSI/RESNET/ICC 301-2014 is the Standard for the Calculation and Labeling of the Energy Performance of Low-Rise Residential Buildings using an Energy Rating Index. It is the basis of the most common Energy Rating Index, RESNET’s HERS Index, which is utilized by utilities and building programs like LEED© and ENERGY STAR®, which require a consistent index to evaluate performance.

ANSI RESNET ICC 301-2014 imageOn March 2, 2018, RESNET released a draft of the 2019 version of ANSI/RESNET/ICC 301, where the most significant change will be the expansion of its scope to include Dwelling Units and Sleeping Units in ANY height building, whether that building is defined by IECC as “Residential” or “Commercial”. Other changes will include those developed by the RESNET Multifamily Sub-Committee, to better address shared systems like HVAC, hot water, solar PV, and laundry, and other scenarios specific to multifamily buildings that have largely been unaddressed until now.  The 1st preliminary draft standard of the 2019 version (dubbed PDS-01) includes these important improvements, along with all addenda to Standard ANSI/RESNET/ICC 301-2014 that were approved prior to March 2.

How Does the Revision Process Work?

The ANSI/RESNET/ICC Standards 301 (and 380) are under “continuous maintenance”. What does this mean? As revisions are needed to improve the standards, they are accomplished via “addenda”. Each addenda has to go through a “public comment” period to ensure that all stakeholders get to provide their opinions or objections to the proposed change before it becomes part of the standard. Rather than re-publishing a new edition of the standard each time a revision is approved, these standards are instead updated every 3 to 5 years to integrate any approved addenda into the body of the standard (instead of as separate addenda), along with any other necessary revisions into a new edition. This is similar to other standards like IECC, ASHRAE 62.2, or ASHRAE 90.1, which typically release a new version every 3 years. (more…)

Multifamily Passive House Ventilation Design Part 2: HRV or ERV?

*click here to read Part 1 of this blog

In climates with significant heating and/or cooling seasons, Passive House projects must have a balanced heat or energy recovery ventilation system. These systems use a heat exchanger to transfer heat and moisture between the outgoing return and incoming outdoor airstreams. The operation of recovery ventilators reduces the energy required to heat and cool decreasing the building’s carbon footprint. Project teams can select either:

  • Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) that transfer heat from the return air stream to the outside air stream; or,
  • Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERV) that transfer heat and moisture from the return air stream to the outside air stream.

Deciding between an HRV and an ERV gets more complex when the Passive House concept is scaled from a single-family home to a multifamily program. What the industry has learned from the development of airtight buildings and programs such as Passive House and R2000, is that indoor relative humidity must be controlled through continuous ventilation. The extremely air tight building envelope required of a Passive House, combined with high internal moisture gains from an occupant dense multifamily program (coming from occupants, kitchens and bathrooms), forces additional moisture management considerations during mechanical ventilation design. Maintaining acceptable interior relative humidity in both the heating and cooling season is paramount for building durability and occupant comfort. It’s appropriate that Passive House professionals claim this simple motto: “Build tight, ventilate right!”

In New York City where the multifamily Passive House market is rapidly growing, there is a significant heating season and a demanding cooling season with high humidity (Climate Zone 4A). With this seasonal variation, there are four primary operating scenarios for an HRV or ERV that need to be considered during design:

Summer Condition – HRV

An HRV operating in the summer (hot-humid exterior air and cool-dry interior air) introduces additional moisture to the building through ventilation. Heat is transferred from the incoming outside airstream to the return airstream leaving the building which cools supply air, but exterior moisture is not removed from the incoming air. The building’s dehumidification load increases as a consequence of additional moisture from the outdoor air.*CON*

HRV Summer operation (more…)