The IT trades are making way for the newest global industry, energy technology. From Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley, the focus is on finding cheap, reliable energy sources. There is a sense of urgency to creating alternative technology, since U.S. oil and natural gas reserves are in steep decline and 70 percent of the remaining world reserves must be extracted from the troubled political countries of the Middle East. Caution would guide us to mete out our existing reserves sparingly, offering the longest buffer possible while we ramp cleaner sources to provide for our increasingly globalized economy.
There is no doubt that brilliant minds churning out 1,000 inventions in 1,000 garages all over America will produce some amazing new technology. Yet we have available to us now, the cheapest source of fuel-the fuel not spent or conserved fuel. However, it is also the most challenging source, as it calls for change.
Our building design and construction needs to change in order to reduce the 48 percent share of U.S. energy consumed in the heating/cooling of buildings in America. An even greater opportunity is presented when looking just at electrical use, where buildings account for a full 75 percent of the U.S. electrical consumption. While it might be tempting to “pay off” the power consumption with photovoltaic solar panels, most buildings don’t offer enough rooftop real-estate for the amount of panels needed. And of course, there is the CO² associated with current fuel sources.
Consensus is building around the concept of reducing the demand first, then applying renewables. Arun Majumdar, director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the EISA 2007 goal of net-zero energy buildings requires both substantial increases in energy efficiency (up to 70 percent or more) with the balance provided by some form of renewable energy generation, either onsite (e.g., photovoltaic) or from off-site renewable generation. Energy efficiencies of this magnitude must firmly deal with the biggest culprits of heat loss-air leakage and gaps in the insulation.
ICF construction is one such proven existing technology that offers airtight construction and continuous insulation. Some ICF buildings have earned accolades for exceeding all energy benchmarks, with energy savings of 50 percent and more. Yet, there are equal accounts of ICF houses not even meeting the Energy Star benchmark of 20 percent improvement over code. Why is one so much more effective, even when they are using many of the same materials? The difference lies in the approach to construction-a fragmented, line item accounting exercise vs. an integrated whole house approach. Majumdar wholeheartedly concurs: “We need a whole building approach that can treat the building as a system and minimize the energy consumption of the whole system while still optimizing comfort and other performance metrics.”
Energy is notorious for finding the path of least resistance. It loves the piecemeal approach to construction. It doesn’t care if there are insulating concrete form walls, as long as there are leaky ducts providing a pathway into an unconditioned attic. The sun beating down on an ICF wall is happy to enter the house via an unshaded window. A quick tour of a building with a thermal imaging camera will uncover the many paths. ICFs provide an excellent wall technology but it must be well integrated with equally thermally efficient windows, doors and ceilings/roofs. Trades will need to learn to coordinate their installations, with an eye to reducing air leakage and providing continuity of the thermal envelope.
The economic argument can always be made to build a more energy efficient new home. Federal tax incentives, enhanced by the recent Stimulus Bill, provide incentives for a more energy efficient building envelope, energy efficient appliances and renewable energy sources. Rebates and tax incentives from states and utilities offer an additional draw in good economic times but what about in the current downturn market? The homebuilders’ lobby has ramped up its sales pitch for a $250 billion stimulus package called “Fix Housing First,” arguing that financial markets won’t recover until home prices stop falling. They are calling for a generous tax credit for home purchases and a federal subsidy that would lower an existing homeowner’s mortgage rate.
Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, has an even better idea. The federally supported lower mortgage rates would be tied to energy improvements, for both new housing and remodeling refinancing. Mortgage rates would decrease in direct proportion to the commitment for increased energy saving improvements. Implementing these measures would stimulate the economy and further the long-term goal of energy security. Homeowners would also enjoy a positive monthly cash flow from utility savings, which could get pumped back into the economy.
The ICF industry is now increasingly positioned to support energy efficient remodels, as well as the existing established market of new construction. Some panel ICFs can be adapted for an insulation retrofit of an unfinished foundation wall. They provide the necessary stand-off from the moisture in the foundation wall, with no thermal breaks in the continuous insulation and furring strips for attaching drywall.
The low-tech energy solutions, which are the cornerstone of energy conservation, have been available for years. One of the key providers of building science-based information is the Department of Energy, through programs such as Path and Energy Star. Recently builders are ramping up for a change.
According to Sam Rashkin, national director for Energy Star for Homes, “over the past 18 months of the housing downturn, there has been almost a tenfold increase in new Energy Star builder partners from ~30/month to nearly 300 per month. EPA staff attributes this growth to an increasing builder awareness that it’s critical to significantly ramp up energy efficiency and green performance of new homes to stay relevant in the market and further differentiate the new product from used homes.”
Accordingly, builders swamped the ICFA booth at the recent IBS show in Las Vegas, seeking solutions to the net-zero goal. This was the right place, at the right time. The ICFA has been actively promoting the integration of ICF walls with other building envelope products that meet the same high benchmark. This may include insulated or precast concrete floors and roofs, SIP roofs, steel framing and energy efficient windows. The 2009 ICFA Conference in Orlando, Fla., September 28 through 30, will provide training in many of these areas.
Green point systems are excellent guidelines or checklists to provide reminders of all the possible sustainable actions. But they are not necessarily equated with energy savings. In a recent study of LEED projects, the LEED buildings did not conclusively save any energy compared to typical buildings built at the same time. Also, there was a notable scatter between the actual and design energy loads, which questions both the tools and the usage of these tools in accurately predicting performance as the performance goals are tightened. Finally, a quick review of projects reveals that a relatively low percentage earns all the energy optimization points.
In other words, LEED does not appear to be a vehicle for market transformation to significantly higher energy performing buildings. On the other hand, a building that is energy efficient can typically gain a large amount of points in most green building rating systems. Concrete and insulating concrete forms are well-positioned not only for the increased energy optimization points in LEED v3 but also for the Energy section of the new NAHB Green Building Standard.
Energy Technology is indeed the industry of this new millennium. We can also learn from the new “simplicity” mantra to seek durable solutions. Prince Charles of Wales cautioned again the use of the “paraphernalia of a new ‘green building industry’ to offset buildings that are inefficient in the first place.” Charles added: “We must act now, by using traditional methods and materials to work with nature rather than against her, while incorporating the best of contemporary eco-technology in an integrated and sympathetic manner.” Insulated concrete construction is one good traditional solution for today’s energy technology needs. W&C
1. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2009 Early Release, Table 2 Energy Consumption by Sector and Source
2. The Federal Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 contains authorized legislation for a Zero-Net Energy Commercial Buildings Initiative, which calls for 80-90 percent reduction in energy consumption for:
• All newly constructed commercial buildings by 2030
• Fifty percent of the commercial building stock by 2040
• All commercial buildings by 2050
4. M. Frankel, “The Energy Performance of LEED Buildings,” presented at the Summer Study on Energy Efficient Buildings, American Council of Energy Efficiency Economy, Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, Calif., August 17-22, 2008.