Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Red Hook’s Zoning Battle: Housing versus Industry

Today's Brooklyn Ink. featured a very interesting article from a young journalist, Lea Khayata.  For a few months she patiently examined the labyrinth, that is Redhook's zoning issues.  This article is a good overview of what I think is a huge opportunity in Redhook as well as many other areas in New York.  Love to hear your thoughts about this issue.  Happy 2011!

Wed, Dec 29, 2010

By Lea Khayata.

Department of City Planning zoning of Red Hook. (Credit: The Manhattan Institute)
Department of City Planning zoning of Red Hook.
(Credit: The Manhattan Institute)
Jay Amato thought he had it all planned. He was going to build his own house on a piece of land he bought at the corner of Van Brunt and Conover streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn. But the city rejected his construction permit for not complying with the zoning requirements. Amato’s property is zoned M (manufacturing). His construction plan called for workshops and offices on the ground floor of the building, with his apartment on top of it. But the residential part of the building was considered too important to comply with the requirements of an M zone.
Amato’s struggle is one of many identical fights over zoning in the neighborhood, a battle that has been going on for years. In 1961, the city zoned the five boroughs for the first time and designated almost all of Red Hook for manufacturing.
Historically, it had always been a mixed-use neighborhood with factories and houses standing side by side. Coffey Street, for example, is zoned manufacturing even though one side of the block between Ferris and Conover streets is lined with 19th century brick houses.
But manufacturing has been on the decline in the area for decades and the demand for housing is growing in the city, leading to a growing movement to revitalize Red Hook around a core of new housing. The advocates in the community and allies like the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research are pushing for rezoning to convert the M zones to residential or MX (mixed-use).
Part of the community has been advocating for decades for more housing as the key to redevelopment of the neighborhood and their voices are getting stronger. The Red Hook Civic Association paired with local businesses and proposed a plan with guidelines for developing the area around the creating of 2,600 housing units.
During the first half of the twentieth century, maritime industry was thriving in Red Hook. The Erie Basin was a major shipping hub and the Atlantic Dock Company was the most important employer in the neighborhood. Longshoremen would live in Red Hook and walk to work every day.
Containerization in the 1950’s ended Red Hook’s status as a major harbor. Big shipping companies preferred to move their business to New Jersey’s larger harbor. The land on the waterfront was abandoned and seized by the city, which undertook major reconstruction projects, demolishing some warehouses and renovating others. Maritime workers left the neighborhood, unable to find a job.
The neighborhood then went through a dark period plagued with crime and drug. New Yorkers didn’t go there, it was considered too dangerous.
In the last twenty years, Red Hook has undergone a revitalization process. Local businesses have flourished on Van Brunt Street, from restaurants to clothing shops, and the number of people moving to Red Hook is increasing every day. People come to the waterfront during the weekend, whether by car, by bike or by ferry. They go to the Ikea and the Fairway supermarket, which both opened in 2004, visit the farmer’s market and enjoy the sun on Valentino Pier, watching the fishermen set their lines on the dock facing the Statue of Liberty.
Despite this renewed interest, Red Hook’s population is still only half of the 20,000 people who lived there in the 60s.
It means that Red Hook has the infrastructure to accommodate a much more bigger population.” says Mitchell Korbey, an urban planner and land use attorney in New York City and a former director of the Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn office.
The movement to redevelop Red Hook around the twin pillars of rezoning and new housing began in 1994 with Plan Red Hook.
Red Hook, a Plan for Revitalization, identified guidelines to turn Red Hook into a dynamic neighborhood where light industry and mixed-income housing could cohabit harmoniously.
In addition to the extra 2,600 housing units, the plan identified thirteen blocks on Van Brunt Street down to the waterfront to be rezoned from manufacture to mixed-use, precisely to reach this balance between housing and industry. The plan only enunciates recommendations in the hope that they will be followed when decisions concerning the neighborhood will have to be taken by the City or the Community Board. The City approved a lighter version of the plan in 1996, but it isn’t binding in any way.
For example, only a portion of those thirteen blocks was rezoned in 2004 as a private zone change. It belonged to Greg O’Connell, Red Hook’s biggest landowner. He was consequently able to turn the Civil War era warehouse he bought into a Fairway supermarket, adding rental housing units on top of the building. A member of the Community Board, O’Connell first opposed the plan advocating for this area to be rezoned.
One of the main arguments in favor of keeping zoning as it is in Red Hook is that there is still some unused land in the residential zone and that no change should be made before this space is occupied. Tom Angotti, an urban planning professor at Hunter’s college who worked on the plan, refutes that idea: “It’s strictly a market approach. It’s logical from a short planned point of view but if the Department of City Planning were real planners, they would see beyond that to what is needed for Red Hook’s future.”
For John McGettrick, a member of the Red Hook Civic Association, the math is simple: “More housing means more workers for the area, and more customers for local businesses.” It also means replacing industry with houses, and raising the value of the land, if one takes the other point of view on the question.
Officially, the Department of City Planning keeps an “open door policy” to any zone change request. But Red Hook’s waterfront has been identified as an Industrial Business Zone (IBZ). According to the mayor’s office website“the IBZs represent areas in which the City provides expanded assistance services to industrial firms in partnership with local development groups.  In addition, IBZs reflect a commitment by the City not to support the re-zoning of industrial land for residential use within these areas.”
Manufacture is not dead in Red Hook. “It is certainly changing, and niche manufacturing, particularly in the food industry and design, is still on the rise. “ says Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC) executive director, Josh Keller. Those activities are compatible with M zonings, and even protected by them, because the zoning designation ensures low rents. If it was to be switched to MX zoning, the price of rent would rise and small manufacturing businesses might get pushed out by commerce or housing.
Jay Amato, the unlucky owner of the corner of Van Brunt and Conover Streets, thinks his construction permit was rejected to avoid “setting an example” in the neighborhood. According to him, a lot of people expressed interest in his project and in reproducing it in Red Hook.
Amato didn’t want to build just one more building in Red Hook. He wanted to build a house that wouldn’t consume any energy, a project he labeled “Red Hook Green”. Renewable technologies were to provide the house with the energy it needed, making it completely independent from the traditional energy suppliers.
Amato has been blogging about it for a little more than a year, and now considers attracting too much attention on the project might have been a mistake after all. He is considering going for a variance – an appeal that would take between one and two years and cost him as much as $100,000 in various fees, with no guarantee of succeeding. It would allow him to build his house despite the zoning, a process many people decide to go through in the neighborhood to get around the zoning issue.
But some disagree with this strategy. Greg O’Connell, who built the Fairway and owns more than 80 properties in Red Hook considers zoning in Red Hook as the chance to keep it as a balanced neighborhood. “People want to live here. I can understand why and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the small business owners are happy here and it’s productive for them. If you lose the working waterfront, if you give it up to residential development, you never get it back.” said O’Connell to the Center for an Urban Future in 2005.
The zoning issue is at the heart of Red Hook’s future. Keeping the dominant M zoning on the waterfront would preserve and supposedly bring back industries to the neighborhood, a prospect about which there is much skepticism among developers like Amato.
It’s like waiting for Santa Claus to come,” he says.
On the other hand, allowing for more residential zoning has its own risks. It would bring more people to Red Hook, but some fear the threat of high-rise building being erected on the waterfront and pushing away manufactures.
For Mitchell Korbey, Red Hook is a very complicated area, with a lot of history and undergoing changes. “It is hard to strike the right balance."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Down, but not OUT!

Over the past month we have been regrouping, reexamining where we are, and looking at various strategies to keep the dream of Redhook Green alive.   Luckily there has been a huge out pouring of creative ideas, support, and advice in response to my last post “Buyer Beware”.  I have gotten emails from city officials (confidentially of course), architects, lawyers, real  estate developers, members of the Redhook community, and readers from as far away as Australia, all overwhelmingly supporting the project and offering their views and expert advice to help me find a way to align my building with the City of New York’s plans, policies and procedures.
Of all of the various emails I’ve received, the most interesting were from other neighborhood leaders, communities and towns (some out of NYS) asking me to consider changing my venue from Redhook to another that would embrace my vision and support it in many ways that Brooklyn has been unwilling or unable to, some including offers of land grants and tax subsidies.  Did you hear that Mr. Brooklyn Borough President?  All I was looking for were some permits. My enthusiasm has been routed in not simply creating a building, but one that could serve as a proof of concept for a net zero energy structure in an urban setting.  
Redhook Winery
One of the key issues facing me is that much of Redhook has been designated an Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) by Mayor Bloomberg.  The Mayor’s Office of Industrial and Manufacturing Businesses website says “These areas foster high-performing business districts by creating competitive advantages over locating in areas outside of New York City”.  Sounds great, I run a business, where do I sign?  But they went on to say “The IBZs represent areas in which the City provides expanded assistance services to industrial firms in partnership with local development groups.  In addition, IBZs reflect a commitment by the City not to support the re-zoning of industrial land for residential use within these areas.”  What about mixed use?  Why wouldn’t that work?  Interestingly, my land is on the very edge of the Redhook Industrial Business Zone, not sure why it begins there, since much of my block is and has been residential for decades.  
I love NYC and I fully support Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for it, but I think we should consider expanding the definition of “modern” manufacturing.  Redhook, like many of the other 16 IBZ’s are already experiencing what I would consider  a renaissance in manufacturing.  I am not speaking of the kind of manufacturing that once called NYC home, but of the new and highly specialized “manufacturing” such as software/web development companies, wineries, boutique distilleries, coffee roasters, bakers, furniture makers, and jewelry designers just to name a few.  The city has developed an impressive plan to attract business “Protecting and Growing New York City’s Industrial Job Base” but I think that  a modern live/work strategy should be able to fit into this vision.  
Interestingly, at the same time the city published it’s plans for attracting new business, a New York based think tank, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, disagreed with the City’s premise in it’s report “Up From the Ruins: Why Rezoning New York City’s Manufacturing Areas for Housing Makes Sense”, it said that “Because New York City has space for 500,000 more manufacturing jobs than actually exist, we propose to rezone some of this manufacturing space for housing and for mixed use. By rezoning the five areas suggested in this report, the city would increase its tax revenues, raise its employment rate, and substantially alleviate its long-standing housing crisis.”  One of those areas pointed out was Redhook.
I say lets all just get along!  One of things that I love about Redhook is the true “mixed use” nature of the area.  I want to clarify that I am not asking someone in the city to allow me to break or change a rule, but rather exercise the discretion they have on the narrow interpretation of that rule so I can build something good for Redhook, for NYC and myself.   I have not given up, I believe there is a way to make this happen.
Keep those emails coming, I love hearing your thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buyer Beware

As of yesterday, my dream of building the first net Zero-Energy work live building in Brooklyn seems to be officially DEAD!  Thanks in part to the never ending bureaucracy and stale thinking at the NYC Department of Buildings.  I think its best for us to go back to the beginning of this project to understand the roots of my current predicament.  
On November 10th of last year, in my post “How To Become A Land Owner”, I discussed the land situation in Brooklyn, specifically as it refers to zoning .   There are three general classifications of zoning here in NYC: C=Commercial M=Manufacturing and R=Residential .  Since I was planning on devoting a large percentage of space to garages, a workshop and offices, it seemed I could justify building on manufacturing or commercially zoned land.  Actually, I later discovered another classification MX=Mixed Use, which would actually have been perfect for my use as it was precisely design for the I envisioned.  While life would have clearly been simpler if I could have purchased a plot that was designated “R” or "MX", nothing that met my need was available on a corner (optimal for solar power).  I was advised that given my particular use, I could  make an “M” zoned plot work.  What that means is that given the majority of my structure was to be dedicated to commercial use, the living quarters would be an ‘accessory’ to the true function of the building.  Therefore we would request the building department grant us permission to live in what would is called a “caretakers apartment”, which would be incidental to it’s primary use.   Jim Garrison assured me on the advice of a former NYC Building Commissioner and “a careful and correct reading of the zoning law”, that this was very common and would “sail through the building department” without incidence.  
So on November 16th, 2009 I posted “It’s A Deal”  announcing my purchase of a 5,000 square foot plot of land, zoned M2-1 in Redhook, Brooklyn and began developing plans confident that I would be allowed to use the land to realize my dream.  We filed the permits and with them a ZR § 12-10 (“Accessory use”) request (July 21st), continuing to believe that we were doing something great for the community, building a state of the high performance, energy conserving building in the place of an weed infested lot.  Beyond that I was clearly and regularly communicating our dreams, ideas, progress and even actual plans to the community  and beyond through this blog. 
After two months, I received an email from Garrison Architects with an update  “Our expeditor has just received word that the "reconsideration for caretakers apt" review has been performed by the borough commissioner.  This was a review required in addition to the general documentation”.  Days later I was advised that “The Brooklyn Borough Commissioner denied the caretakers request.  As expressed by the expeditor, reasons for refusal are “bogus”.  A resolution (basically an appeal, see link) form has been drafted to present to a higher power.  It clearly lists all restrictions and how our building complies.  This will be submitted first thing Monday morning to technical affairs”.  It looked like we had crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's.
That brings us to where I am today (basically screwed)!  After a telephone hearing last week, the all knowing, politically charged and narrowly minded men and women of the NYC building department capriciously determined “that the proposed living or sleeping accommodations for caretakers in this case is not incidental to the principal use”.  To quote James P. Colgate; Assistant Commissioner of Technical Affairs and Code Development “ The request to have a living or sleeping accommodation for caretakers as per ZR 12-10 as an accessory use to this new office building is DENIED.” 
How can they say that, when a former commission basically said it was usual and customary?  What is it that these underpaid public servants could possibly be protecting the “unsuspecting” public from in this case?   It seems like the DOB no longer exists for the individual, but only for the largest developers and their deep pocket political contributions.  I wish I could let our Mayor (who thankfully does not need those deep pockets) know that a prime example of his green vision PLANYC 2030, died on the table of HIS Building Department.  If this bothers you, please HELP!  I am running out of ideas.
The only options left to me as I see them are:
  1. Build a green office building - It’s too small and off the beaten path to make a sound business case for such a structure in the next few years.
  2. Apply for a zoning variance - 60 to 100K in professional services expenses, one year and no guaranty that it will be successful.
  3. Walk
None of these seem particularly appealing.  Any thoughts, ideas, recommendations, contacts or kind words of encouragement would be appreciated.  I will think about this a bit and keep you posted on my progress.
Oh, by the way, we did figure out a way to build it very close to budget, but alas that seems to be a bit of a moot point.  More later.

ZRD1: Zoning Resolution Determination Form

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Alive and Kicking

Over the last four months I have attempted many times to compose a post that accurately portrayed the status of this project, my frustration with it, and my associated state of mind. But I just couldn't find the words, as shit seemed to be coming at me from all directions. To my friends, neighbors in Redhook, supporters and readers, we are still alive and kicking, even though I feel like the featured "kickee"!

Since my last post we have encountered many delays, clearly it’s almost October and we have not dug up a spoon of soil. Those delays were primarily in three areas, but none will be huge surprises to any of you. First, was Garrison Architects completing the final construction drawings, with the not so surprising realization that this is one complicated building, finalizing all of the moving pieces was much, much more time consuming than ever imagined. Next the NYC permitting process (need I say more), not simply at the city level, but also with what is ironically named the “expeditor”, which in total was was slower than even anticipated (or communicated to me). And finally we recently received the “knock out punch”, when we requested final pricing from a few qualified construction teams, only to find out that given the complexity of the building, so goes the price. OK, I guess I should have figured that one out on my own!

Jim Garrison and his team have done an amazing job, integrating design, technology and function into this fabulous net zero energy building! But given the uncharted nature of we set out to accomplish in an urban setting (new building processes, materials, energy creation just to name a few), it is no wonder that the timeline has stretched to the point of breaking (my sanity and budget that is).

Completed plans to the Department of Buildings, originally projected to be submitted by December of 2009, did not arrive there until late July for many reasons. One that deserves special mentioned is the “expeditor”. That is a person that is alleged to assist the architect and developer in reviewing the plans and making sure they are ready for submission to the Department of Buildings, in order to obtain the various permits required to build in the City of New York. Given the “supposed” knowledge of the intricate workings of the DOB, they are to shepherd the project throughout the entire process. They claim to insure that our package does not get “stuck” anywhere within those intricacies and are well paid for it. Well months later, we technically don’t HAVE permits, or very much good usable information, even though the list of issues raised by the DOB were microscopic as compared to the complexity of the project. In my humble opinion, our expeditor (write me if you want to know who to avoid) has been a drag on this project and is a prime contender along with our mechanical engineers for “REDHOOK GREEN TEAM LAGGER*” (*defined as to fail to keep up a pace; straggle). In almost every case they have not never met a date they could not miss or follow-up they could not avoid. I am paying for all of this, so I am entitled to my opinions :)

The last and most devastating blow during these last four months was in the construction pricing. In late August, three reputable and qualified general contractors were paired with the same caliber of steel modular builders to bid the complete project(see construction drawings). In mid-May one of those teams, provided us with a rough estimate for the project that came in at 125% of budget (aargh). At that point I was comforted by the fact that no real competitive bidding was done amongst the trades and the real bidding process between GC’s was yet to begin. So it seemed that the budget was still do able. Well, on August 23rd, this all came crashing down, as the bids came in from 150% (that was from our May estimator) to 280% of budget (sadly, this one came from my out of town underdog team that I was really rooting for)! HOLY SHIT. Where did we go wrong? Did this spell the end of Redhook Green? There was no way I was going to raise the budget, so what to do?

Jim assured me that he would stand behind his commitment to build me a great house at the agreed to budget, even if he needed to go back to the drawing board and redesign the house. So at post time, it seems like a full re-design won’t be necessary as Jim and his team have extensively rebid various trades, reviewed materials and are working hard to get the home back to budget. In my next post I will review some of the changes proposed and where we see our next steps.

With this blogs one year anniversary around the corner, I will be getting more prolific and will discuss lessons learned and whether I'd do this again if I knew what I know now. Stay tuned.


P.S. Check out the recent press posting and CNN story!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Let me put your minds at ease, I have not abandoned this blog or my project.  I started to write this post many times over the last month, but most were unproductive diatribes on those responsible for our delays.   While we are 60+ days behind schedule, I actually am impressed when I look back and realize this all started with an idea on July 20th, 2009 (check out "Looking in the Rear View Mirror at 90MPH" for more historical detail), that equates to just a little over nine months to where we are today.

Since my last post we have completed the mechanical design, including a new solar power/HVAC system (third one is a charm, more in a future post) closed the land deal and completed all drawings and applications for the NYC Department of Buildings.  It is our hope that given the level of detail and adherence to zoning and code, we will obtain our permits in 45-60 days.  We will keep our fingers crossed.

Here are a few detailed drawing submitted this week, they are from over thirty submitted.

This weekend, Garrison Archtects will be showing at the 8th annual BKLYN DESIGNS™ show, which will be held May 7 – 9, 2010, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  They will be featuring the designs and technology of Redhook Green, hope to see you there.

Thanks again for your interest.  Jay

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cutting vs. Bleeding Edge?

Well here we are nearly a month since my last post.  So what's going on?  Well, as they say the devil is in the details, and we have been finalizing lots of the details on the energy generation, HVAC and construction of this amazing building.  Good news is the design is locked, and I have included some new images, a cross section and 3-D visualization of assembly and views of the house.  But there has been a lot of back and fourth on the final energy generation plan and associated HVAC system.  You may remember from and earlier post "Getting to Zero" we were wrestling with how to generate enough power for the main building, garage including electric car charger and workshop with the 850 feet of we had for solar panels.  Well the solution that I described that utilized the PVT or Hybrid Solar Panels, seemed at that point to fit my "Keep it simple"mantra, but after a great deal of investigation, much of it dealing with a German manufacturer, it became much more complex and expensive.  

While wrestling with what was technically elegant, and very "bleeding edge", we stumbled on a great solution from Sanyo to increase our solar yield from a more traditional, but "Cutting Edge" solution.  Sanyo's HIT® bifacial solar panels capture additional ambient or scattered sunlight to produce more power at any angle and any direction than single sided panels, therefore addressing our yield issues.  If you notice on the cross section drawing the solar panels are now lifted off the roof to allow abient light to be captured as well as under the awning over the fourth floor.  With this solution in hand we SHOULD be able to lock this part of the plan and go to press with the final drawings for the NYC Building Department.

We have gotten some very preliminary numbers back from one of our possible builders and we are within our planned budget, so that is good news.  So while we are now behind an additional 30 days, we should be able to pick up the time and get back on schedule.  Thank you for you continued interest, I will be posting more regularly as we move out of this more cerebral phase, into the more action oriented one (my favorite).  

Take a minute and review this new 3-D rendering, it illustrates the modular assembly as well as 360 degree views of the structure.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Redhook Green On The Road

Interest in zero energy construction is building all over the country and with it interest in Redhook Green.

Garrison Architects and I will be presenting the Redhook Green Project at the 9th annual Architectural Digest Home Design Show at Pier 92 (55th street at the West Side Highway, NYC) starting March Friday March 18th through the Sunday March 21st from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  We will be presenting new graphical and model representations of the building designs and systems.  We will have samples of some of the materials planned to be utilized and additional information from manufactures.  The team involved will be on hand to answer questions.  We expect the show to really begin to have a sustainable/green focus.

Running concurrently to the Home Design Show (same admission) will be the Go Green Expo, the nation’s leading eco-friendly trade and consumer showcase. Uncover new ways to live and work in a greener world through expert panel presentations and 250 + exhibits in areas such as energy, transportation, food, health & beauty, home & building, business& electronics and fashion.  Hope to see you there.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Breaking Radio Silence

Sorry about the increased time between postings, we had been waiting for additional feedback from the team before we presented you with these two views of the finalized design.  Changes have been made to respond to suggestions from the structural and mechanical engineers, to simplify construction, reduce cost and generally hone the design.  

Some specific changes you may notice include: 

We decided to open the second floor south wall to expose the steel substructure and sheath it in translucent glass to provide overall protection, shading and privacy.  Our thermal modeling showed that it would not change the temperature balance in the heat or cold, so we thought it looked great and it added to the consistency between the second and fourth floors.

The fourth floor canopy was modified to allow the overall design to provide a more symmetric relationship with the lower structure and simplify the construction process.  Instead of having a separate canopy (as provided in earlier drawings) to fabricate and install separately, it will now be integrated as part of the modular structure.

The schematic diagram below is the visualization of the power generation and HVAC system I described in my post "getting to zero" a few weeks ago.  While it might look like a plate of spaghetti, this diagram actually has been simplified to leverage the combination PV/thermal solar collectors to provide electrical power to the POWER TO LOAD  (better know as the house) and hot water to the thermal storage tank.  That hot water will be used to heat and cool (via the absorption chiller) the house with fans blowing over the coils.  A small electric powered boiler and demand hot water heater will provide backup.

Last night I presented the vision for Redhook Green as well as these renderings to a group of my new neighbors in Redhook at the The Redhook Economic Development Association meeting.  Steve LaMorte, a RHED board member wrote me today, "As you can see, there is a good deal of interest coming from the neighborhood for your respective projects (the other being the Beautiful Earth Group). There's a palpable level of excitement that is growing around the changing face of Red Hook. We believe your projects are going a long way in helping us define the new identity of Red Hook and we're hopeful that they will aid in galvanizing other like-minded environmentally conscious entrepreneurs to also find a home in this very special and unique neighborhood."  I am glad to be part of this great community!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Moving The Ball Up The Hill

After a great review meeting with Jim Garrison and his team , it seems as if we are in the final weeks of the design and documentation phase of the project, that includes final plans for the mechanical (including the solar component), electrical, plumbing and structural components of the plan. This rendering illustrates the evolution of the design, including the the windows, the use of wood and exterior finishes.
As we continue to move the ball up the hill, this is the rough timeline for us to reach the "top":

Complete design development 
now - 2/15
Obtain preliminary costing
NYC Building Depart Submission      
Foundation/First Floor Construction
5/15 - 8/1
Module (floors 2-4) Fabrication
5/15 - 8/1
Set Modules on Foundation/First Floor
8/1 - 8/3
Interior/Exterior Finishing
8/3 - 10/1
Certificate of Occupancy/Move - In 

As we look back, the current timeline has us about sixty days behind our original thinking. The complexity of balancing conservation/generation with design has driven many iterations of the design, but at this point it seems all elements are in check.  I am so excited about how this is progressing, what do you think, love to hear from you with thoughts and questions.

BTW, check out new coverage from Metro's International Edition "Adding To It's Appeal" an article about our role in Red Hook's evolution.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting to Zero

As promised we have gotten back the results of the thermal modeling from our mechanical engineers, which was a simulation designed to test our energy conservation and generation assumptions.

The great news is that Jim and his team have designed a very efficient "high performance envelope", basically put roofs, ceilings, walls, windows, doors, external floors and soffits are components of the building "envelope". A high performance envelope means that each component is designed to minimize the transfer of thermal energy which in turn creates an energy efficient or "tight" building.  That is very important since we first want to conserve or minimize the amount of heating and cooling required to make the building comfortable which in turn reduces the amount of energy that we need produce to cover those requirements, while meeting our objective of NET ZERO.

But in order to provide addition energy savings we are investigating a new technology for the interior walls and ceilings in the house, called "Phase-Change Wallboard".  Phase-change materials (PCMs), usually a paraffin that can be embedded in gypsum (wall) board, form a class of building material that functions as a storage medium. Materials undergoing a phase change (freezing, melting, condensing, or boiling) store and release large amounts of heat with small changes in temperature. PCMs offer an order of magnitude increase in heat capacity, and for pure substances they discharge their heat with almost no change in temperature.  This is extremely cool (in the great sense, not the cold sense) because it allows the thermal storage of our building to become part of the building's structure, permitting substantial energy storage without changing the temperature of the building. Because the heat is stored within the building where the loads occur rather than externally, additional fans or other air movement is not required.

The real challenge came when we looked at the other side of this coin, energy generation.  As you may remember from our December 29th post, the roof area was redesigned to accommodate the solar PV array, providing about 850 square feet of usable space.  The simulation indicates on a conservative basis that while the area on the roof would be sufficient to power the main building, it would not provide the necessary KW's to provide any heating or cooling for the garages and workshop, any equipment usage (i.e. power tools) or electric vehicle charging stations. So it's back to the drawing board for us to find about a 25% increase in renewable power generation.

Since the heating/cooling and power generation are joined at the hip, we needed to revisit the entire process to get those gains that we need to get to NET ZERO.  So this morning we met with our team of mechanical engineers Imtiaz Mulla and David Goldstein of Plus Group Consulting Engineering to revisit our current plans.   What a great education I got today.

Our options seem to be:
1. Re-design roof to accommodate 25% more PV panels.
2. Re-design the entire building, to create additional higher elevation roof space, much like "Option 1", in our original designs.
3. Evaluate the addition of wind turbines to supplement the PV's
4. Evaluate the addition of a geothermal heating system to reduce the heat generation and therefore the load on the solar output.
5. Evaluate other heat collection options to reduce the heat generation and therefore the load on the solar output.

The team decided:
Option 1: No way to ascetically add that much more area to the roof without "disfiguring" the building.  - NO
Option 2: While definitely possible, I rejected a previous design that "spread" the building across the lot more evenly.  We all love the design and don't want to re-think it again, not to mention the delay and cost associated. -NO

Option 3: This weekend, I feel in love with the idea of supplementing the PV's with wind turbines, there are some very cool ones out (check out this one from Helix Wind, it's functional sculpture).  But as in many love affairs it fizzled fast, it seems that while advertised performance of this technology in small applications look great, the actual output has been less than promising. has a great article on wind that presents the pro's and con's of wind.  - NO

Option 4: While geothermal technology has been implemented successfully across the world, especially in Germany, it seems very complex and expensive.  The expense is driven by the cost of drilling, in most case at least 1,000 feet at a cost of over $20/foot.  Geothermal ground loops can be installed in a variety of ways, depending on the region, climate, cooling/heating requirement, excavation costs and soil conditions. The three most popular loop configurations are vertical, horizontal and pond loop.  - NO

Option 5: As the discussion progressed it became apparent that the application of some new technology, could potentially solve our problem, while adhering to my "keep it simple" mantra. - YES!

So it was decided that we would investigate a different HVAC system, one based on using the sun to heat water through coils, rather than the original plan of using the south facing thermal solar wall to generate warm air that would be fed directly to the building ventilation system.

Enter a new technology, Hybrid Solar Panels or PVT's.  PVT's make more effective use of valuable solar roof space. This ‘technological convergence’ effectively more than doubles the per square foot solar power output of PV alone. This is accomplished by passing water under the PV producing hot water as a byproduct, in effect, a solar co-generation process.  We then can store that hot water for use in the heating/cooling system.  Another benefit leverages the fact that PV solar panels grow less efficient as they get hotter, the water passing through the panel cools the underside of the PV panel therefore lifting effective output.  For more information I encourage you to read a very good executive summary on this technology, it's pros & cons and challenges from the PVT Form, sponsored by the European Union.

Finally under this new scenario we would eliminate the heat pump and cooling compressors originally specified and replace them with a much more energy efficient system using a new device called an "Absorption Chiller". With this device, it is now possible to cheaply produce cold from warm temperature flow.  Using solar generated heat this is more environmentally friendly and cheaper to operate than conventional compression chillers, in fact there is no freon or alternative refrigerants. This is a viable option for generating cold from heat supplied from the Hybrid Solar Panels and with applying very little electrical energy.  Another positive from my perspective is that it contains so few moving parts susceptible to wear and tear, maintenance of the unit is very limited.  So Imtiaz and David are off working through the details and will re-run our thermal energy model to see if this combination of technology and engineering will help us reach our goals.