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.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Green is The New Red, White and Blue!

Happy 2010! Sorry for the large gap between postings, but planning activity is ramping up as we prepare for a spring kick-off. On the progress front we’ve refined the design a bit and added tongue and groove cedar to the fourth floor and some other portions of the exterior. Our mechanical engineer is working on the thermal model and as soon as we have the results we will tune the amount of insulation and glazing to meet our zero energy target. We are looking at a variety of energy production options, their cost and incentives, as well as how the building needs to be insulated etc. Our next few posts will be interesting ones.

I could not be more excited about this project and how it’s progressing. One of my personal objectives for Redhook Green (and this blog) is to show by example that a net zero energy building is viable in a place like NYC, and that it can be built cost effectively (with some support available from the government) using new designs and building methods. But why isn’t it happening faster? There are lots of good common sense reasons to adopt some or all of the ZEB strategies, it makes sense, it can save money, it’s the right thing to do, but that does not seem to be enough. It’s like eating healthy and staying fit, many of us just never get around to it.

So each of us that have developed a 'sense of urgency' need to evangelize this issue with our friends and family. I am talking about a serious dialog. What exactly will resonate with folks from different walks of life will vary, but there is one that will fit, be creative. There are at least three major 'roman numeral' level talking points that should be the basis for nearly all compelling “why renewable energy NOW” discussions. We need to get beyond the belief that we can recycle our way out of this problem!
I. The continued warming of the planet based on quickly increasing carbon dioxide levels requires real action and sacrifice on each of our parts.
II. Dependency on oil from “friendly countries” (aka petro-dictators) like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia or Venezuela.
III. The United States needs to take a leadership position in the world market place of renewable energy technology as we did with computing and Internet over the past 25 years.

For most, one or a combination of these positions are generally enough to get people to think.  For one of my friends, who does not buy into the urgency of climate change, but who is a true patriot, oil dependency and American Industrial Supremacy resonated loud and clear. He by no means is he alone in his disbelieve in climate change, in fact the Gallop Poll says that a record-high 41% now say that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated.  As recently as 2006, says author Lydia Saad in her Gallup Poll article, "significantly more Americans thought the news underestimated the seriousness of global warming, than said it exaggerated it".  
Thomas Friedman, author of "Hot, Flat and Crowded" said in his NY Times article "We will need to find a way to reknit America at home, reconnect America abroad and restore America to its natural place in the global order — as the beacon of progress, hope and inspiration. I have an idea how. It’s called “green.”   
So, once you convince someone on why "Green is The New Red, White and Blue", what's next?  I admit it's not easy yet.  The simplest way to think about what can accomplished is in the areas of conservation of energy (use less) and alternative ways to generate it and what resources there to help cover some of the costs.  Unfortunately there is no Whole Foods of renewable energy and sustainability to just walk around and soak up a new lifestyle, that green-ish lifestyle that I aspire to.  There is no REI-like super-store of trusted gear where you can take your solar panels for a ' test ride' or a place to 'try on' the newest home insulation products for yourself.    And were can companies who are innovating go to showcase their newest products?  Who do you go to to build a multi-year plan  to conserve and/or generate clean power.   How do you maneuver the many government programs, regulations, tax breaks and subsidies? And once you do establish the plan, where will you find contractors that have been trained on really maximizing conservation and energy production options?
Lots of good questions, a few of them I am seriously focusing on as I move through the maze myself.  Standby for some answers.  Please post your thoughts, I'd really love to hear from you.