All posts by Claire Cummins

Want to Save Water? Use Less Energy

When weighing the benefits of energy savings with a project’s budget, owners usually don’t look past reaching code standards and certification levels or the money saved from avoided energy consumption. However, reducing energy demand also reduces our consumption of another important resource- water.

Water is required to generate electricity from fossil fuels. Coal fired power plants are the largest water consumer because the process requires water to extract, clean and sometimes transport coal to the power plant, where more water is then required to cool steam and control pollution at the site. The International Energy Agency estimates 580 billion cubic meters of freshwater are withdrawn for energy production each year, making it the second largest source of water withdrawal in the world.

At the state and national level, water consumption from energy production can be dramatically reduced by switching to energy sources that use significantly less water, such as natural gas. Solar and wind are even better alternatives because they require no water for electricity production. This does not include the water used to manufacture renewables, but the amount of water used to produce the panels and turbines is negligible compared to water consumed to operate coal fired power plants.

Building designers, who rarely have a direct impact on U.S. energy policies, can do their part by aggressively driving down energy demands and encouraging owners to use on site renewable energy generation to offset electricity consumption from the grid. Investments in reducing grid electricity consumption become more enticing in states like California where freshwater supplies are severely threatened.

Some would argue that if projects could recognize water and energy savings outside the project’s site boundaries, engineers would make decisions using a full life cycle analysis (LCA). However, if design teams were allowed to recognize water savings from reducing energy consumption, should they then be forced to benchmark their efforts as a percentage of the total water use at the power plant attributable to energy generated for the building?  The absolute amount of water savings seems significant, yet when compared to the total water demand the savings become less impressive.

The flip side of this argument is that increased transparency might lead to designers making better decisions that benefit more than just those who own and occupy the building. Rating systems like LEED are experimenting with offering points for whole-building LCAs that show significant reductions in CO2 and other substances that have negative environmental impacts.

Ultimately building codes and rating systems will need to include a scoring methodology that allows buildings to recognize savings beyond their project’s borders without being misleading about the building’s total footprint. As stakeholders continue to demand more transparency, we expect to see LCAs playing a bigger role during the building design process.

 

Photo from http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/video/coal-river-morning-hd-stock-footage/463254456

Solar Outlook in New York

There are now more reasons than ever before to buy solar in New York State. It’s no secret that burning fossil fuels for electricity generation has been adding to our planet’s climate change problem. For concerned citizens, this has always been a major driver for installing solar panels at their home or workplace. However, solar PV power systems are now being seen as an investment in electricity generation with lower energy prices and less risk than burning traditional fossil fuels. Here are a few of the reasons why:

1: Distributed Energy (Net Metering) – Investor-owned utilities in New York are required to offer net metering to residents that install a PV system (up to 25 kW) or other types of renewable energy generators.  Net metering is a billing method that “pays” customers (i.e. gives them a credit towards their utility bill) with renewable energy generators for the electricity they supply to the grid. Public utility companies are not required to offer net metering, however many in New York do.

2: Higher Energy Prices – This past February, the price for a kilowatt hour of electricity in New York State was 19.76 cents, which is about 7 cents higher than the national average (12.29 cents/kwhr). By using solar to offset grid electricity consumption, New Yorkers are saving more on their utility bill than customers in other states with lower electricity prices. Additionally, as energy prices continue to rise, solar owners will see a faster return on their investment.

3: Financial Incentives – New York has hefty state rebates and tax credits for solar owners who qualify to help cover the high upfront investment in a PV system. Solar purchases are also exempt from property and sales taxes.

4: Required Solar – New York has set a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) goal of 22.5% energy from renewable sources by 2020. Within that goal there is a 2% solar carve-out, which means that New York needs more solar to meet their goal!

As New York continues to support renewable energy development, solar companies are also working to create cheaper, more efficient systems. Whether you care about the environment, want save (or potentially make) money through your utility bills, or protect yourself from future energy price spikes, solar installation is clearly a smart choice.

 

Photo provided by http://pixabay.com/en/solar-cells-solar-energy-708178/

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day! Today we chose to celebrate by asking everyone in our office to suggest ways in which we can be greener while we work!  Check out the list below to see what we came up with:

  1. Have IT program all computers so they turn screens off, rather than put on screensavers when computers are idle – Sarah G.
  2. Use pens with refillable ink – Joel T.
  3. Don’t stock the refrigerator with plastic drink bottles – Claire C.
  4. Buy a soda stream for the office! – Dagna H.
  5. Measure our electricity consumption using an electrical meter so we are aware of how much energy we consume – Brian Shassian
  6. Adjust the refrigerator temp to 4 degrees C and freezer to -18 degrees C can help the fridge work less and the food doesn’t go bad or thaw – Josue A.
  7. Encourage people to bring food from home in reusable containers – Winnie
  8. Stop using disposable plates, cups and utensils – Dagna H.
  9. Stop printing things that don’t need to be printed, and when you do print make sure it’s double sided – Dagna H.
  10. Order vegetarian/vegan office lunches – Claire C.
  11. Take the stairs instead of the elevator – Danny O.
  12. Get a keg for office happy hour instead of buying individual beers – Charles C.
  13. Use environmentally friendly cleaning products to clean the office – Claire C.
  14. Have a green wall where people can quickly write green/sustainable ideas/thoughts – Abdul T.
  15. Use recycled paper to print anything that is used internally – Lisa C.
  16. Turn off the A/C unit and open the windows on a mild day – Lisa C.
  17. Remove individual trash cans and place paper recycling bins next to every printer – Will P.
  18. Buy office furniture made from sustainable materials – Ethan C.
  19. Take misprints and other single-sided documents we don’t need any more and use them for scratch work and note taking – Ethan C.
  20. Add occupancy sensors to all the light switches – Cyprienne C.
  21. Have large outdoor air temperature and humidity displays on both sides of the office so we know to open our windows on nice days – Cyprienne C.

Photo taken from http://www.wildretina.com/

3D Printing and the Built Environment

The design and construction industry has come a long way since the days of paper drawing and hand written construction plans. Thanks to our ever-evolving technologies, we have figured out how to draw plans on the computer and print them for contractors. More recently, designers have access to programs that produce designs in the third dimension. So naturally, the newest technology to hit the market for the construction industry has been 3D printers.

3D printing first began in 1986 with Charles Hull, who applied for a patent for his stereolithography apparatus. He then went on to co-found 3D Systems Corporation, which is still around today and is one of the largest 3D printing companies in the world. Today, the market for 3D printing is estimated to be worth over $3.5 billion.

Many of the companies in this market are capitalizing on the benefits 3D printing has brought to the construction industry, such as decreased labor costs, less material waste and shorter construction periods. There are even a few companies that claim they have the technology to 3D print entire buildings at once. For example, WinSun, a China based company, claims to have printed 10 houses in 24 hours. They have also printed a 5 story apartment building, which was done using a printer that is 20 by 33 by 132 feet. In the United States, a professor at the University of Southern California has developed a printer that consists of a nozzle on a gantry and sprays out concrete based on a computer generated pattern. He believes his printer could produce a house in just one day.

3D printing is also creating new market potential in areas where building projects were not previously possible – outer space. Before 3D printing, man-made construction projects were too risky and expensive to perform in space. Currently, the European Space Agency is exploring the idea of printing bases on the moon using lunar regolith raw materials, which means only 10% of the building materials would actually have to be transported from earth.

As the 3D printing business continues to grow, it will inevitably revolutionize the design and construction industry in ways that were previously unimaginable. From more affordable housing options to lunar construction projects, 3D printing will certainly leave its mark on the built environment.

Photo taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing 

Sustainable Snacking

Each week, our office receives a snack delivery from FreshDirect. Our order typically includes apples, bananas, coffee and of course, Snyder’s Honey Mustard & Onion pretzel pieces. Because we view ourselves as a “green” office, I decided to see how sustainable our favorite snack is using the GoodGuide rating system.

The GoodGuide rates products on a scale of 0-10 (0 being the worst and 10 being the best). Each product is rated for health, environment and society. The final score you see is a combination of the three scores, with the option to see the breakdown of the products rating in each category.

As soon as the snack shipment arrived, I grabbed the bag so I could scan the barcode on the side of the packaging to see the pretzels’ rating (a nice feature of the app that makes it easy to use when you’re in a rush at the store).

Overall, Honey Mustard & Onion pretzels were only a 3.7! Here’s what the GoodGuide had to say about this product:

  • Human Health Impacts: 3.0, this product has an average nutrition score.
  • Environment: 4.2, this company’s environmental policies, practices and performance place it among the worst 50% of companies rated by the GoodGuide.
  • Society: 4.0, this company’s social policies, practices and performance place it among the worst 50% of companies rated by GoodGuide.

To be honest, I’m not sure why a 3.0 for Health is considered average (shouldn’t 5 be the average?). Regardless, this Snyder’s product is clearly not performing well in any category.

Another convenient feature of this app is that it suggests alternative products that are similar but have a higher score. GoodGuide suggested ten comparable snacking options that scored either a 7.4 or a 7.5, a big jump from 3.7. As an office, we have agreed that any of these are a better option than the pretzels we currently order.

Consumers don’t always know the full impacts of the products they are buying. However, apps like GoodGuide force companies to be more transparent and accountable for their actions. Also, with features like the “alternative products” list, consumers can take back control of their footprint and purchase more sustainable foods and products.

Sick of Home? Why Not Move Into a Cave

Would you move to China to pay $30 a month in rent? What if it meant your new home was in a cave? While most New Yorkers would probably pass on the opportunity, there are approximately 30 million people in China who have grown accustomed to this lifestyle.

Most Chinese caves are in the Shaanxi province, where the soil is very porous and easy to dig through. Chinese caves range from simple, one-bedroom living spaces, to full scale homes with modern features. According to a report from the LA Times, a cave with three bedrooms and one bathroom could sell for $46,000. The nicest caves have plumbing and electricity, are very spacious and have architectural features similar to traditional luxury homes. People also buy furniture and hang pictures on the walls to make the caves feel homier.

These caves are often hailed as “eco-friendly” because they use significantly less energy than traditional homes and apartments. Unlike modern homes, caves naturally maintain a constant temperature throughout the year and therefore require no energy for heating and cooling. They also require significantly less building materials than traditional homes, which greatly reduces their ecological footprint. Some caves have not even been updated to include electricity or running water, making them the least energy intensive of them all.

Cave dwelling is certainly not a new phenomenon in China. However, if you do decide to move there in hopes of adopting this lifestyle, it might prove to be more difficult than you think. Most families have passed down their cave homes from generation to generation and have no plans to sell their caves any time soon.

Photo taken from http://assets.inhabitat.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2012/03/Cave-houses-shanxi-2-537×357.jpg

Maximizing Indoor Air Quality

An important design consideration that can sometimes be undervalued is maximizing indoor air quality. Between work, school and home life, humans spend about 90% of their day indoors, where air quality can be two to five (or more) times more polluted than the outside. These pollutants come from combustion of fuels used for heating and cooling, building materials (i.e. carpets, pressurized wood products, etc.), outdoor air pollution, cleaning supplies, chemical products and other various sources. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to an increase in cases of asthma, allergies, heart problems and lung cancer. The problem has become so widespread that people are starting to take notice.

Engineers are responsible for designing the building’s mechanical systems to filter and move air in and out of our living spaces. Most building owners are becoming increasingly more aware of the pollutants humans can be exposed to and are investing in mechanical and natural ventilation systems that maximize indoor air quality well above the industry baseline standards. Rating systems such as LEED have created design criteria with higher indoor air quality design standards for engineers and building owners to use (for a detailed description of these strategies, click here).

Even if a building’s systems are designed to the highest possible standards, there is always room for improvement. Growing plants inside is great for our atmosphere because all plants absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. However, certain plants can also filter harmful pollutants from the air and are a low cost solution to be used in almost any building at any time.

The idea of using plants as a filtration system was first used by NASA as a way to clean the air in their space facilities and is now a common practice here on earth as well. Here are a few examples of plants that go above and beyond the limits of an engineered ventilation system:

1: Snake Plant- Known for filtering out formaldehyde, which is most commonly found in cleaning products, personal care products, toilet and tissue paper. Experts recommend you put it in your bathroom, as it can survive in humid conditions with little exposure to sunlight.

2: Bamboo Palm- Best plant for filtering out both benzene and trichloroethylene, which can cause a number of health problems including certain cancers, pregnancy complications and neurological disorders.

3: Heart Leaf Philodendron- Excellent at removing VOCs, however this plant may not be a good option for households or schools with children or pets, as it is toxic to humans when eaten.

Photo taken from https://unsplash.com/