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BARELY LEGAL: Home edition

 

“The Absolute Least You Can Do Without Breaking The Law”

A handy, if unauthorized, subtitle for the New York State Building Code might be “The Absolute Least You Can Do Without Breaking The Law”.

This is not exactly inspiring. When it comes to energy use, “meeting code” means that you are building the biggest energy hog that you are permitted to construct. The Hummer of Houses, so to speak, a barely legal residence that contributes the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions allowable.

I have no objection to the NYS law. It sets minimum standards. Regarding energy use, it tries to contain gross negligence which would exacerbate environmental problems or tax our energy generation capacity. But their tool – the code – is a blunt instrument in this regard – a cartoonishly small, ineffective mallet against a War of the Worlds-scale enemy. (FYI, the enemy in this caricature is the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change; the cause is the increase in CO2 concentrations that has triggered global average increases in temperature).

Then there’s the money. Code compliance doesn’t usually result in the best return-on-investment (ie lifecycle) decisions regarding energy-efficient design and technology, nor should it. It’s not yet up to Big Brother to legislate best practices or compel us to be financially savvy. That places the responsibility on the owners (and their architects) to determine how far beyond energy code minimums a building can afford to go based on the triple bottom line.

At the other end of the spectrum from ‘barely legal,’ is the holy grail of greenhouse-gas emissions – zero. A Zero Net Energy (ZNE) building is one that – over the course of a year – consumes no more energy than it can produce. ZNE buildings – mostly homes – exist now. Superinsulation, energy-sipping appliances, a smart grid, consumer energy awareness, and perhaps $30,000 for wind turbines or solar arrays, will do the trick.

More broadly achievable might be if we set that as a 20-year goal, with intermediate benchmarks and a measurable way to chart our progress. Actually, the organization Architecture 2030 has issued that exact challenge. They note that buildings contribute a whopping 76% of all coal-based GHG emissions and they submit that 2030 is an achievable nationwide goal for phasing them out.  For homes completed in 2009, their target for fossil fuel-based energy use was a 50% reduction over the published regional average, stepping up the reduction every 5 years until “carbon-neutral” new construction is achieved in 2030.

Can that goal be readily achieved right here in the Finger Lakes, right now? One year’s actual energy data at three 2009-built area homes designed by my firm indicates the answer is yes. Do we collectively have the willpower and the foresight to make this a priority? Time will tell.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR TAKING THE 2030 CHALLENGE

  1. Retrieve your utility bills for any recent twelve month period. Convert to kBTU:
    • Electric. Take total kwh used during that period, and multiply by 3.4
    • LP. Take total gallons used, multiply by 91.3
    • Natural Gas. Take total therms, multiply by 100
    • #2 Fuel Oil. Take total gallons used, multiply by 139
  2. Add up total kBTUs between your electric and heating source.
  3. If you generate electricity (or buy it from renewable sources) you can subtract that from your total.
  4. Calculate your gross square footage (gsf):
    • For these purposes, include any basement.
    • In other words, if your house has a rectangular floor plan 20×40 and is 2-stories plus a full basement your total would be 2400 gsf.
    • If you have an attached garage, include that.
  5. Take your total kBTU, and divide by your total gsf. The answer will be in kBTU/sf/yr
  6. Our region’s average is 45.7. The energy use goal for meeting the 2030 Challenge through last year would be a 50% reduction, or 22.9.
Rick Hauser