The Building Science Podcast Reviews by Positive Energy

You know, it's kind of funny after these last 4 years of creating and developing and maintaining this show - none of us thought it would go anywhere when we started it and we just kind of thought it'd be a fun thing to do. Fast forward to today and we've got a whole bunch of you out there listening, giving us ideas, and we've interviewed some of the best thinkers in the business. It's pretty awesome.

And now we're asking for your help. It's not a big favor to ask, we promise. 

As with any podcast, our show lives and dies by reviews. Without reviews on the podcasting app (mobile), iTunes (desktop), or on Stitcher, we lose placement in the search results and our audience doesn't expand. Today we're simply asking you to take a look at what other folks have said and consider leaving us a review. 

When we took a look through some of the feedback that listeners have given us, we were humbled by how positive their words are. Thank you to all of you who listen and review!

Here's What Folks Are Saying

Leave A Review

If you haven't left us a review yet, please consider it. We love any and all feedback - after all, this show is fundamentally about you getting something useful and inspiring out of it. 

Answering Your Burning Questions At The Humid Climate Conference by Positive Energy

Kristof and Miguel will be on the Humid Climate Conference scene recording lots of great content for The Building Science Podcast and they want to hear what questions you want answered. They'll be hanging out with Joe Lstiburek, Lew Harriman, Jonathan Bean, Kimberly Lewellyn, Andy Äsk, Matthew Tanteri, Claudette Reichel, ad infinitum. Brain juice to the max, y'all. 

Don't miss out! 

How To Ask Your Question

  1. Leave it in a comment on this blog post. We'll check back daily to see what you've got to say. 

  2. Tweet at us with the hashtag #HCC2018. You can find us at @bldgscienceatx

  3. Email us at podcast@positiveenergy.pro

Live Streaming

If you can't make it to the conference, but still want to see the talks, there are live stream tickets available for purchase at the Humid Climate Conference website. It's going to be a good one. 

 

Kristof's Recent Interview With The Journal Of Light Construction by Positive Energy

Greetings building science nerds,

Thanks for stopping by our little bloggy corner of the web.

As you could reasonably expect, when someone calls Kristof and wants to talk about building science, we avoid the norms. Instead of talking about assemblies or materials and ratings, we go straight to talking about human health and how the building serves it. And that's exactly what happened when the Journal of Light Construction's Senior Editor, Ted Cushman, called to talk with Kristof for his recently published article, "Controlling Humidity in Warm Climates.

What is the main output of your house? It’s healthy, productive human beings. The main output is you. So all the stuff we do around buildings really should be around you. And the main thing I need to do for you is to deliver healthy air for you to breathe. In building science, it might be safer and friendlier to talk about moisture accumulation in materials, and ‘should we do a vapor retarder,’ etc.—but it’s much more important to talk about upper respiratory infections, asthma, and sleep apnea.
— Kristof Irwin, P.E. Mech. Eng., Co-founder of Positive Energy

Check out the article for yourself. It's a good read and has some pretty pictures of machines made by our friends over at UltraAire Dehumidifiers. And if you haven't yet, check out our podcast. We talk plenty about the overlap of the health sciences and the building sciences. There's a lot to talk about! 

 

 

Positive Energy Press Updates by Positive Energy

Positive Energy has been busier than ever with new design work, but we've also got some great projects finally built and getting some remarkable recognition. We're so proud to be involved with the great partners we have. 


The Constant Springs Residence

Alterstudio Architecture

Our clients partner with us to manage the complexity of delivering comfortable, healthy spaces in their projects. And we're proud to work with alterstudio on their residential work because they're a firm who cares deeply about process and the outcomes they deliver for the homeowner. Our communications are smooth and the more we work together, the easier it is to anticipate one another's needs. To-date, we've designed integrated mechanical systems for dozens of projects together. 

Alterstudio focuses its attention on the relationship between the material facts of architecture and the social occasions it shelters and invites.  The work is rooted in deep-seated virtues of architecture – generous space making, shrewd manipulation of day lighting, and meticulous attention to detail. The heightening of direct human experience and the framing of the complex circumstances of their situations are at the core of each project.

We think they're absolutely fantastic and to play a small role in helping deliver their vision is such a rich experience and rewarding endeavor. 

I have been working in custom residential architecture in Austin, Texas for over 15 years. Our firm prides itself on thorough attention to detail, and to the resolution of technical issues especially as they relate to the broader experience of the architecture. For many years I had sought out a partner that could work with us on the integration of HVAC systems. We tried everything: working with design/build installers in the design phase, subcontracting with mechanical engineers whose specialty was obviously commercial, and reaching out to companies outside of Austin that claimed to specialize in residential HVAC. The results ranged from modest regrets to full on disappointment. When we came across Positive Energy, we finally felt like we had a dedicated and knowledgable team member that would help us take our projects to another level of resolution. It has truly been a successful partnership.
— Ernesto Cragnolino, FAIA

If you're in Austin and came out to the last AIA Homes Tour, you were lucky enough to walk around in their Constant Springs Residence for which we designed mechanical systems. The project has received quite a lot of attention lately, most notably the cover of the most recent edition of Dwell Magazine. Structural coordination and aesthetic integration was key on this project. There was no stone left unturned in detailing. 

Photos Of Magazine: Creede Fitch

Architectural Photos: Casey Dunn

Alterstudio also earned Luxe Magazine's RED Award for AUSTIN + SAN ANTONIO Regional Winner, Contemporary Architecture. Moral of the story, we're very proud of our work together and can't wait to see what these incredible and thoughtful colleagues of ours keep cooking up. We'll keep you posted on future collaborations. 


Haskell Health House

Jen Weaver, Weaver Buildings

Jen Weaver is an architect and developer passionate about the market realization of high-performance buildings. She actively participates in Urban Land Institute, particularly the FutureBuild Committee, and is a member of United States Green Building Council. Jen currently attends the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy seeking a Master of Real Estate Development. Her research describes the potentials of greenhouse gas capture and Clean Air Infrastructure Real Estate futures.

The Haskell Health House is an urban garden home steps from Lady Bird Lake, Austin, Texas. Thoughtful interior spaces fill the home with over 1100 sq ft of landscaped living featuring an outdoor kitchen, dining space, cocktail lounge, master screened porch and a roof deck with lake views. We had a lot of fun designing with Jen on this project, thinking deeply about indoor air quality and thermal comfort.

Most recently her project was featured in a spread by Green Building Magazine Taiwan

 Photo: Atelier Wong

Photo: Atelier Wong

Architectural Photos: Twist Tours


Prairie View A&M University Team Grand Winner at Race to Zero Student Design Competition

We're proud to announce to our readers that the student team from Prairie View A&M University, under the guidance of their professor Shelly Pottorf took home a few major awards from this year's Race to Zero Student Design Competition. Turns out, this wasn't the Prairie View A&M team's first rodeo. They're a really sharp bunch. 

The Race to Zero is a U.S. Department of Energy competition that inspires collegiate students to become the next generation of building science professionals through a design challenge for zero energy ready buildings. Students become part of a new leadership movement to achieve truly sustainable buildings. The Race to Zero is formulated to advance and enhance building science curriculum in universities. 

Through this competition, future architects, engineers, construction managers, and entrepreneurs will gain the skills and experience to start careers in clean energy and generate creative solutions to real-world problems. The team from Prairie View A&M turned out to be the cream of the crop this year, taking home first place not only their division contest in Urban Single-Family Housing Contest, but also the Grand Award for the entire competition. We are SO proud of their work and dedication to the project. 

We worked with the Prairie View A&M team to help bring their vision to life in a functional way. We advised the team on an array of topics - systems thinking, design thinking, thermodynamics, mechanical design, structural/mechanical coordination, enclosure detailing, and we provided mechanical and hot water design work for their project. 

 Photo: Michael Walker's iPhone

Photo: Michael Walker's iPhone

Did You Know The University Of Texas School of Architecture Has A Thermal Lab? by Positive Energy

We got to check it out and it's pretty impressive. We may even have recorded a podcast episode with Steve Bourne, who is one of the chief scientists in that lab. Who knows. All we can say for now is that it's a very comfortable place to be. 

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Why Do We Keep Building And Buying Homes That Don't Serve Us? by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts,

Let's talk about food for a minute. The thought of eating pesticides reminds us that our bodies are subject to environmental exposures that we'd like to avoid. So to solve the problem, we've decided that organic food makes a lot of sense.

And this fact really is amazing.

We live in one of the most brilliant and connected times in the history of human beings. With relative ease, most of us have access to high quality food in well stocked grocery stores. And in those stores, we can even gain insight into where the food came from, whether it was grown in an ecologically sound way, and whether or not it participated in a supply chain that involved fair trade and ethically sound transportation.

What a luxury! 

For the vast majority of its history, agriculture can be described as having been organic; only during the 20th century was a large supply of new products, generally deemed not organic, introduced into food production. The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture.

And now It's become the norm - for those who want to purchase food conscientiously, you're more empowered to do so than ever before. And there's good reason to want to buy food this way. Again, the thought of eating pesticides reminds us that our bodies are subject to environmental exposures that we'd like to avoid. We know that chemically intensive farming is not sustainable for the very land that grows the food. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that better food equals better living for everyone. 

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house-3121344_1920.jpg

So why doesn't our society treat homes the same way? Why are we generally content on allowing, what constitutes for most the largest financial transaction in one's life, to be completely unknown to us? 

Well, it's got a history, especially in the US. Around the same time organic farming was getting off the ground, just after World War II, suburban sprawl began with developments like Levittown. Not only were developments like this codifying racist housing policies, but they were also tearing at the fabric of quality building processes. Levitt envisioned Henry Ford's assembly line being able to build homes faster than anyone else. He had dollar signs in his eyes and had no notion that he'd be creating boxes for people to live unhealthy lives for generations to come. 

54e7db8815ca2_william_levitt.jpg
Any damn fool can build homes. What counts is how many you can sell for how little.
— - William Levitt

This Zeitgeist lives on today and is evidenced in almost every single growing city in America. The values that have been, for generations, instilled into the construction industry are centered on first cost and speedy delivery. It's a baton-hand-off, everyone passing on the liability to the next person down the chain.

And so we've grown to assume that the product we're getting is the best. It's become part of our vernacular through real estate sales with concepts like a "starter home." We think, "well it looks like a house and it has that tile I like" so we buy it. But there's still some part of our brain that recognizes there's more that we don't know about the house, but it gets put on the back burner. And as the political economy changed in the early aughts, many of us began to value the illusory "energy efficiency" that marketers exploited to give a sense of added value, but we rarely experience a truly well designed and built home. Even fewer still know how to assess the air quality and thermal comfort considerations that went into our home's construction. 

It's a tragic reality. But why does it happen? 

Consumers don't know and so they don't ask for it - we've been conditioned not to. But consumer behavior is something that changes through time. We saw in the "green building" movement, a glimmer of something new. And now that we're gaining knowledge about the negative impacts of poor air quality and indoor pollutants, it's only a matter of time before your home's health score becomes a regular part of the list of factors that determine whether you'd buy a home or not.

The question is not the inevitability of better homes. It will definitely happen on a long enough timeline. The question is whether or not you find the current practices acceptable and whether you're ready to start asking for something better. 

Just like organic produce, there are a lot of good reasons to ask for better homes. We know that elevated humidity levels in indoor environments are causally related to developmental asthma in kids. We know that elevated indoor CO2 levels can cause cognitive disfunction. We know that phthalates and VOCs are known endocrine disrupting chemicals - and they're literally all over your house. We know that designing better humidity control and ventilation control systems inherently improves the resiliency and ecology of a home. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that better homes equals better living for everyone.

mold-2035457.jpg

Mold is just the tip of the iceberg...

...when it comes to problems that occur in poorly designed and built homes. The full microbiome in our indoor spaces consists of bacteria, protozoa, archaea, and a whole host of other particulates, dust mites, and tiny invisible things that are directly interacting with your physiology.

We have to stop waiting for someone else to ask for it. The problem doesn't go away just by avoiding it or pretending it's not a big deal. If you're an architect, hire good consultants. If you're a builder, advocate for good consultants. If you're an HVAC installer, distinguish yourself by knowing better systems. If you're a homeowner, don't settle for "well this is just how it's done." 

So what are you waiting for?

Whether you're a professional in the industry or someone looking to purchase a home, you should be asking for better options. The technology to make it happen isn't the problem - there are plenty of amazing products out there. We fundamentally need to start asking the industry to pay attention to human health (meaning you and your family's health) so that the outdated processes and thinking changes.

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained.
— Mahatma Gandhi, Young India 1924-1926 (1927)
gandhi-spinning-wheel-01.jpg

 

 

Breathing: The Good, The Bad, & The Funky by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts! 

Thanks for joining me out on the range here to visit the ole family blog and help me wrangle up a herd of thought cows... I seriously need to get better at opening lines. 

I'm here to do a bit of a recap of a fantastic article that was just posted on The Royal Society of Chemistry's site called Every Breath You Take. If you've got time, definitely give it a read. It's got some quality analysis and framework to help us think about and relate to indoor air quality in homes. For those who are less inclined to read an entire article, here's the Positive Energy's Digest version. 

 Source: Sam Falconer/Debut Art

Source: Sam Falconer/Debut Art

Indoor Air Pollution 

Positive Energy has taken particular interest in the topic of indoor air quality as the scientific community is increasingly pointing to negative health outcomes deriving from indoor exposure to pollutants. This is particularly alarming as we've learned from The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants that we spend 90% of our time indoors. Even more remarkably, 70% of your time is spent in your home. 

We need to be thinking about the kinds of exposure we're experiencing in homes! 

Indoor air is a dominant exposure for humans. More than half the body’s intake during a lifetime is air inhaled in the home. Thus, most illnesses related to environmental exposures stem from indoor air exposure.
— Sundell, J. (2004), On the history of indoor air quality and health. Indoor Air, 14: 51–58. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0668.2004.00273.x

How Do We Know?

The article takes a light touch approach to looking at how we know what we know about indoor air quality. It turns out that there are some really fascinating and meaningful studies and meta-studies that are going to seriously impact the way we think about indoor spaces. Scientists are studying how to measure the air and what's in it and they're studying how different exposures cause reactivity with other surfaces (including how pollutants get into our bodies, which isn't just through the lungs!). Why is that important? Well just take a look: 

The indoor environment has a lot more surface material per volume of air than an urban air basin and that translates to a much larger importance indoors of surface-associated processes.
— WILLIAM NAZAROFF, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY, US

With so much surface area for pollutants to react, there are serious health implications. There are pollutants and then there are pollutants that interact with other chemicals and become unknown and unstable pollutants... Seriously.  Add to this that each time we cook, we're creating a whole microscopic world of combustion particulates and it's a doozy! 

That's why it's so crucial that this is getting research attention. These data will literally support groups like ASHRAE as they endeavor to understand and recommend better ventilation standards, filtration standards, and deal with related thermal comfort potentiality. It's a big deal. 


The Takeaway

The time has come for us to pay attention to indoor air quality. Scientists and researchers already are. It's only a matter of time before these findings affect the laws that dictate what we're allowed to design and build, but we think we can do better already. Pay attention. Incorporate this into your practice! 

We can affect the quality of the air around us in a multitude of ways; from what products we clean with, to what fragrances we wear, to what and how we cook and whether or not we smoke or burn candles. ‘We want people to recognise that they are living in a box; any chemicals or combustion products that released into the box are in there with you. It doesn’t take a lot of mass emitted to make a high concentration in the air in your home,’ says Singer. ‘We recommend people start with the basics of using products that have less toxic chemicals, avoid excessive moisture and make sure their combustion appliances are vented.’
— WILLIAM NAZAROFF, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY, US

Thanks for reading! See you next time. 

BEC: Austin Speaker Luncheon - Indoor Air Quality by Positive Energy

 Dr. Richard L. Corsi, Ph.D., P.E. 

Dr. Richard L. Corsi, Ph.D., P.E. 

December 6, 2017 - 12:00pm - 1:00pm

Join BEC for their final meeting of the year, as they focus on indoor air quality with a presentation lead by Dr. Richard L. Corsi.

Richard L. Corsi, Ph.D., P.E.

Dr. Richard L. Corsi joined the faculty of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) in 1994, after several years on the faculty of the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada.  He is the Joe J. King Chair in Engineering #2 at UT Austin, and served as Chair of the Department of CAEE at UT Austin from 2013 to 2017. Dr. Corsi received his B.S. degree in Environmental Resources Engineering from Humboldt State University in 1983, where he was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2006.  He received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California at Davis in 1985 and 1989, respectively, and was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of the College of Engineering there in 2016. Dr. Corsi’s research focuses on indoor air quality, particularly on sources, fate, occupant exposure, and control of pollutants of both indoor and outdoor origin.  In recent years his team has focused on indoor oxidation chemistry, including the concept of passive removal materials to control unwanted chemistry in buildings.  Dr. Corsi has served as PI on over 75 funded research projects over 27 years and has supervised 20 Ph.D. and over 50 M.S. students. Dr. Corsi teaches courses on indoor air quality at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2016 he was honored with election to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, an honor bestowed on 5% of faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.  He also received a prestigious Regents Outstanding Teaching Award for the entire University of Texas System. Most importantly, Dr. Corsi is human dad to Chloe, the world’s most wonderful Australian Cattle Dog.


BEC:

Austin is an interdisciplinary organization that promotes the exchange of information on building enclosures and related science specific to the climate of Central Texas.

Interdisciplinary: 

Architects, engineers, contractors, building owners, consultants, facility managers, code officials, educators, manufacturers, and those with a stake in building enclosure performance

Exchange of information:  

Discussion, training, education, outreach, and awareness

Building enclosures and related science: 

Energy-efficiency, moisture control, indoor air quality, longevity, and durability

2017 BEC: Austin Committee Chairs:

Kristof Irwin, PE
Amy Gelsone, AIA

BEC: Austin typically meets the first Wednesday of each month from 12-1pm.

Location

AIA Austin
801 W 12th St
Austin,  TX 78701

 

Indoor Air Quality Best Practices In Post-Construction Environments by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts,

Miguel here again to throw some mind spaghetti at the wall of the internet to see what sticks (I've got to get better at opening lines).

We know that IAQ is such an important consideration in design and construction. Essentially, if we ignore it, we're ignoring the health and well-being of the occupant, which is insane. Why build something if it's going to harm the person who will live or work there?  After all we spend 70% of our lives inside our homes and given what we know about how the human body works, the quality of the air we breathe in our homes will affect the health of our families. 

Indoor air is a dominant exposure for humans. More than half the body’s intake during a lifetime is air inhaled in the home. Thus, most illnesses related to environmental exposures stem from indoor air exposure… Main environmental issues today are outdoor air quality, energy use, and sustainable buildings, but not indoor air quality… In developing regions indoor unvented burning of biomass for cooking is the cause of at least 2,000,000 deaths a year (mainly women and children), and in the developed world IAQ is the main cause of allergies, other hypersensitivity reactions, airway infections, and cancers.
— Sundell, J. (2004), On the history of indoor air quality and health. Indoor Air
indoor air quality asthma

Nothing like a quote with some weight behind it to kick off a blog post. There is a LOT to be said about good practices for IAQ in spaces across their lifecycles, but today I want to focus on a few points and a few basic actions make it fairly simple to improve IAQ.


Phase 1: Post-Construction Building-Flush 

During this phase, the dominant pollutant sources are within the conditioned volume of the home. Pollutant sources are part of the home - predominantly surface finishes, adhesives and sealants. Obviously, it behooves us to think through what products we're bringing into the space early in design or construction. Pollutant release will vary depending on the materials used. Particulate matter, moisture and gas phase pollutant release occurs as materials dry and cure.

Typical pollutant sources include:

  • Paints,
  • Urethanes,
  • Plasticizers (phthalates),
  • Flame retardants,
  • Tile grout,
  • Grout sealer,
  • Plastics, and plastic components,
  • Cleaning products,
  • Sheetrock mud,
  • Insulation binders and other sources of aldehydes.
  • Significant moisture is being emitted from building materials during the post- construction.
    • Home framing alone can hold many hundreds of pounds of moisture beyond long-term dry conditions.

Owner decisions on furnishings, fragrances and cleaning products also introduce pollutants and degrade IAQ.

Use your nose, it knows.

Or more simply, if you can smell it, it's probably there. In general, estimate 1-2 months for this phase, with rapidly decreasing emissions of most major pollutants. Semi- volatile VOCs (phthalates, bromated flame retardants, etc) can take years. Always air out the home prior to occupancy after it's been closed for more than a few days.

General Strategy 

Let the pollutants out. First out of the materials, this means that heat, humidity and UV are desirable during this phase. Second, once released from materials, let the pollutants out of the home. Avoid storing carpets, towels and upholstered furniture in the home during this phase as pollutants can adsorb into those materials. As much as possible, place upholstered furnishings, carpets, draperies and towels in the direct sun for several hours prior to bringing into the home.

Use your point source pollutant control fans in the baths and kitchens (using the range hood is always a good idea). Be sensitive to humidity conditions in the home - though humidity promoted outgassing (hydrolysis), it is considered an interior pollutant because it can lead to mold and other moisture related issues and can impair dimensional stability in trim work and furnishings

Specific Strategy 

Depends on season and outdoor conditions. Given that we are currently in a cool dry fall weather pattern, leave open to exterior air as much as possible. Close the house periodically to heat it up (82-84F), then vent.

Actions during this Phase

  1. Open house as much as feasible
  2. Close to heat up occasionally
  3. Leave dehumidifier set to 60%
  4. Leave dehumidifier ventilation set to ON
  5. Check and change filters frequently
  6. Create post-construction filters by connecting a 24"x24" MERV11 or MERV 13 4" pleated media to the Return side of a simple box fan.
  7. Use point-source pollutant control ventilation fans
  8. Check the HVAC filters before move-in! 

Phase 2: Long Term Occupancy 

The basic assumption during this phase is that materials and surface finishes will have outgassed and the dominant pollutant sources are now external to the conditioned volume of the home in the form of pollen, dust, combustion by-products and other outdoor IAQ pollutants.

indoor air quality

Other pollutant sources during this phase are materials/furninshings that are brought into or created within (cooking, showering) the conditioned volume of the home through occupant actions. Cooking is a big deal. Don't discount it! 

 

Actions during this Phase

  1. Maintain the space relative humidity at 55-60%
  2. Maintain space temps for thermal comfort as desired
  3. Ventilation ON when occupied
  4. Note that there is no need to maintain an occupied cooling set point when the home is unoccupied. Reasonable to set the controller to 84F - assuming no art, antiques or musical instruments "say" otherwise
  5. Check and change filters frequently until pattern/schedule is identified, typically twice annually for 4" and 4 times/year for 1-2" pleated media filters
  6. Use point-source pollutant control ventilation fans diligently
  7. Be mindful about what you bring into the home and what IAQ pollutants you create/release within the home 

Final Thoughts

This is not an exhaustive list and we probably missed something. But in general, this is a strategy that can really make a difference for a new home's IAQ. 

Another astounding fact to ponder:

Because Americans spend approximately 22 hours every day indoors, susceptible individuals are at much greater risk of adverse health effects from chronic low levels of exposure to indoor air pollutants over time. Along with particulate matter, gases such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide; microbial and chemical volatile organic compounds; passive smoke; and outdoor ambient air are the most common types of air pollutants encountered indoors.
— The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 121, Issue 3, March 2008, Pages 585–591

If you thought the green building movement was big, wait until you see what's coming down the road with regard to Healthy Homes. Big manufacturers are positioning to brand around this idea. Google's own search data points to a shift in what people are searching for when researching their own homes. Hint: they're not asking about energy use as much as they are healthier housing options. 

Also, don't forget you can absolutely keep tabs on your own home's IAQ with consumer facing devices now. You don't need a vast array of specialized sensors with complex interfaces to know when your air is bad. Go down to TreeHouse and pick up a FooBot. We have one in the office and the CO2 monitor alone is a great way for us to know when a long-winded meeting should end. :) 

foobot indoor air quality

Until next time, building science enthusiasts. 

Energy Vanguard - The Contractor's Fear of Third-Party HVAC Design by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts,

We've been reading Dr. Allison Bailes' newest blog post over at Energy Vanguard and it's too juicy not to share. You'll get the gist pretty quickly - why are installing contractors (generally) so fearful of an engineer's design?

Answer - well, it's complicated. 

What if a builder refused to build from plans drawn by an architect? What if a tile installer refused to implement designs handed to them and instead did their own thing? What if an HVAC contractor told a potential client they wouldn’t install a system designed by a third party to ACCA protocols? One of those questions is more real than the others. Of course builders build from architects’ plans and tile installers don’t throw out designs they’re asked to implement. But third-party HVAC design is a different animal.
— Dr. Allison Bailes III, PhD

There is some nuance to the situation he's bringing up. Installers may experience resistance due to the lack of quality third party design in their market or they may have had a poor experience previously with a third party designer. What this speaks to, at least from our perspective, is the need to integrate. From the architect to the GC and installer, the mechanical designer needs to have a mastery at navigating communications and facilitating productive conversations across the project team. 

Here at Positive Energy, that's our primary directive when we engage with firms to pull off successful Integrated Mechanical Designs. If we can't maintain fluid communication and establish clear goals across the team, our chances of experiencing a negative outcome go up. But it's solvable! And we work hard to make sure it's happening.

More thoughts from Allison: 

Where I’d like to see us get to is to have a relationship between third-party HVAC designers and HVAC contractors like that between architects and builders. Architects and builders are both licensed professionals, so one part of the answer may be to require licensing for third-party designers. I’m not convinced that would solve the problems, though. If licensing were the answer, the contractors — who have to be licensed in most places — would already be doing everything properly. And my friend Kristof Irwin of Positive Energy in Austin, Texas is a licensed engineer who faces the same kinds of problems.
— Dr. Allison Bailes III, PhD

Thanks for the shoutout, Allison! 

He's absolutely right. Licensing regulations exist for a reason and we take that very seriously. We've got a robust team here with many credentials, but the fundamental code of ethics by which we operate have to do with the professional engineering license. We are obligated to look out for the health and safety of the public and our clients. That's why our designs are so robust and detail oriented.

And we totally understand that robustness can be intimidating to an installer we've never worked with before. But we also understand that if the design isn't implemented correctly, all our hard work was just wishful thinking. And that encapsulates why we offer support to the GC and installer in the CA phase of our projects. As long as we're in fluid communication, the kinks work out pretty easily and we're definitely in the business of setting this precedent across the industry. We think we can all do a lot better and the world will benefit greatly for it. 

Moral of the story: Allison, once again, presents us with another set of great ideas. If you're not already following his blog, don't miss out. He's got a lot to say and he says it well. 

Cheers,
Miguel

Architecture In Review: Witt Architecture Office by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts! 

witt architecture office logo

Hope your respective summers have been great and now that the autumn season is getting underway, we hope you are taking the time to enjoy the built world around you. A lot of energy, time, and exertion went into designing and creating the homes and buildings we spend almost all our time in each day. The design details make a huge difference in quality for a home or building and it takes an architect with the right kind of wisdom, skill, and experience. That's exactly what our friend Scott Witt brings to the table. 

Scott is a registered Architect in the State of Texas and Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC) and when he's not designing excellent houses, sometimes he helps us design construction details for our clients. He's also been a guest on The Building Science Podcast. He's an all around great guy to know and have on your side when it comes to thoughtful and intelligent home design. His work is truly where building science and architecture collide. 

Check out his work for yourself. Give him a ring and ask him what differentiates his process. You won't be disappointed. 

 

AIA Houston Presentation by Positive Energy

We wanted to make available the slides Kristof presented on VRF equipment for the AIA Houston, Wednesday July 12. We also included the audio that was recorded to accompany the slide deck.You'll find both the audio and the PPT file access below. Please enjoy! 



 

 

 

What's The Deal With Air Conditioning? by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts, 

Miguel here with a brief mid-summer musing. It's hot out so I figured we could talk about air conditioners for just a moment. Nothing too deep, just a simple few thoughts to stir that summer mind-stew for you. 

Air Conditioning The New York Times

The New York Times just published an piece on climate change and the role that ever growing demand for global air conditioning plays in the carbon puzzle that we, as a society, find ourselves trying to work out. It's called "If You Fix This, You Fix a Big Piece of the Climate Puzzle" and it's a quick read if you've got a little time. For those of you who want a digested version, we've provided the big points below. 

Fixing air-conditioning is, let’s face it, not the most exciting solution to climate change.

Perhaps for the same reason that remodeling a kitchen is more enticing than replacing a water heater, devising greener refrigerant chemicals will never make headlines like solar installations or electric cars do. You just can’t take a great selfie with the inside of an air-conditioner.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

This is a decent way to frame the importance of HVAC, but there's obviously so much more to be said. The salient point for me is that HVAC kind of falls flat in people's ears because it's not as exciting as the other sophisticated technology in our lives. Nobody stands in line for the new designer series of an air conditioner like they do for the newest iPhone. 

I can't count how many times my friends' eyes have glazed over when someone we meet in a social outing asks me what I do. I have to unpack quite a lot to explain the relevance of HVAC to the global economy and how architectural and construction processes work.

There are a whole lot of people in the world who don't care about air conditioners beyond whether they work and keep them cool and I don't blame them. It's not exactly Game Of Thrones material (by the way, if you're a fan and didn't know, the new season premiere is this Sunday. Get with it, already). But it's precisely because people find it a little boring that I am so excited that The Times published a front page piece on HVAC's role in curbing climate change. 

These little boxes matter a whole lot.

New research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California indicates that adding improved efficiency in refrigeration and phasing out fluorinated gases used for cooling, as mandated by international agreement, could eliminate a full degree Celsius of warming by 2100. Given that the “business as usual” trajectory leads to 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of warming, that is shaving off a pretty big slice.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

Lawrence Berkeley National Labs just keeps bringing in the heavy hitting data points for us. This is a big deal and should be a huge reason more people would care about HVAC. If you don't talk to your kids about thermal comfort and energy flows, who will? 

That’s because from India to the Philippines to South Africa, air-conditioners are increasingly a must-have item. Less than 10 percent of homes in India have units, but air-conditioning makes up 40 percent to 60 percent of the country’s electricity demand in major cities like New Delhi. Businesses and homeowners in Asia and Africa are expected to buy an estimated 700 million air-conditioners by 2030, and 1.6 billion by midcentury. Without major changes in the way we cool ourselves, those units will in turn crank up the global furnace.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

Bottom line - air conditioning is no longer subject to an American-specific product demand. Much of the developing world is seeing massive HVAC adoption, not always with the most forethought to how to do things well. 

Efficiency doesn’t require a global treaty. It does, however, call for new regulatory policies on manufacturing standards and labeling.

It matters, researchers say, because cooling has a direct relationship with the building of coal-fired power plants to meet peak demand. If more air-conditioners are humming in more homes and offices, then more capacity will be required to meet the demand. So 1.6 billion new air-conditioners by 2050 means thousands of new power plants will have to come on line to support them.

The Lawrence Berkeley study argues that even a 30 percent improvement in efficiency could avoid the peak load equivalent of about 1,500 power plants by 2030.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

This is good stuff. Efficiency needs to be a part of the conversation, but we also need to talk about how we deliver that system in the systems of architecture and construction. Don't let your  guard down just because something is "efficient." Demand more of your project delivery. 

The countries driving the bulk of demand for air-conditioning — China, Brazil, India, and Indonesia — have energy efficiency improvement policies like labels and incentive programs. But improvements to China’s policies could have sweeping gains, because it is the key exporter to countries primarily in Southeast Asia, where demand is growing. India’s Ministry of Power is working to develop a program for bulk purchases of superefficient air-conditioners, which may include refrigerant alternatives to HFCs.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

Policy matters. A lot. Be civically engaged and let your representatives know how we can lead the world in energy policy, especially when it comes to air conditioning. And most importantly, don't forget that these air conditioners are meant to provide comfort and clean air to people. It's crucial to continue the discussion on indoor air quality and thermal comfort rather than just diving down the rabbit hole of energy efficiency. They're not mutually exclusive ideas and, when thought about properly, actually can improve in tandem. 

Want to know more about the VRF systems that are so popular around the world? Check out our podcast episode about that very topic.

How To Kill A Good Business by Positive Energy

Here's some food for thought. Of course they're broad stroke statements, but useful to consider. 

Product Weakness + Lack Of Innovation = Dead Business Models

  • Netflix did not kill Blockbuster. Late fees and a lack of innovation did. 
  • Uber did not kill the taxi business. Limited taxi access, fare control, and a lack of innovation did. 
  • Apple did not kill the music industry. Being forced to buy full-length albums and a lack of innovation did. 
  • Airbnb did not kill the hotel industry. Limited availability, limited pricing options, and a lack of innovation did. 
  • Amazon did not kill other retailers. Bad customer service and experience alongside a lack of variation and innovation did. 

Technology by itself is not the real disruptor. Being non-customer centric and neglecting to innovate your products and services are the biggest threats to any business. 

How are you staying alive?

The Solar Climb by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts!

Miguel here again with more musings for your thought buckets. 

I want us to think about solar PV today. Although we don't often talk about solar PV from a systems level perspective, there are some notable global-market-level numbers to look at. This won't be a long post, but hopefully a thought provoking one, especially as we consider what the impact to human beings will be in all of this (after all, what else is the point if we're not looking out for the well being of others?). After reading through the massive report by GTM Research, we were a bit taken aback by this statistic: 

The concentration of global solar demand is more pronounced than at any time in the industry’s last seven years, such that the top four markets (China, the United States, India and Japan) are expected to account for 73 percent of total installations in 2017. Driven in large part by a new wave of installations in China, India’s market doubling in size, and falling PPA prices, global solar PV installations will grow more than 9 percent in 2017, reaching 85 gigawatts.
— The Global Solar Demand Monitor
 Courtesy of GTM Research.

Courtesy of GTM Research.

In case you were wondering, the GSDM is a quarterly report that provides insight into major developments for the global solar landscape. They offer an assessment of the trajectory and key trends in the global market and providing thoughtful analysis of how the solar industry (as well as other renewable energy industries) function(s) across the planet. Green Tech Media also puts out The Energy Gang podcast, which is excellent and highly recommended for those of you who like to think about energy from a policy, economics-focused perspective. 


What Does This Mean?

To reiterate, they're calling for a 9% growth rate for solar installations world-wide. Given that there are some exciting consumer oriented prospects on the market here in the US, like the Tesla Solar Roof* (even though it's not the only solar roof available, nor the cheapest), one could assume this is responsible for the growth predictions. But scale up your thinking to what a 9% growth rate means on the global scale and you'll see that this kind of prediction has much more to do with the economics and viability of the technology writ-large. The potential impact solar carries on the way the built environment receives electricity is more potent than any other emerging technology. 

Again, 9% world-wide.

Yeah, it's a huge increase. We're talking a massive increase in supply for a rapidly increasing demand. Obviously this has some substantial implications if it holds true. The way the world is powered is undergoing a shift and so too will the way our built world receive it. More on that later. But first let's dive into how we're seeing this play out.


What About Specifics?

According to data put out by National Grid, last Friday alone in the UK, the nation’s solar panels beat the previous record set just last month by generating 8.7GW of power, more than nuclear and coal power combined. Making up around 25% of the UK's electricity that day, solar power was the second most used generating technology behind gas-fired power, which is certainly a new record. Similarly, we saw lion's share of California’s power demand going to solar, topping 50 percent for the first time in March of this year. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 40 percent of the state’s power demand was filled by utility-scale solar generation for several hours.

But it the impact doesn't squarely end with the consumer facing energy user. The uptick in solar industry jobs is soaring. The US added 50,000 solar jobs in 2016, a record in its own right. According to The Solar Foundation, the solar industry in the U.S. employs more than 260,000 workers nationwide — that’s more workers than Apple, Facebook, and Google combined

 Courtesy of The Solar Foundation

Courtesy of The Solar Foundation

Last year alone we saw a jump in annual global PV demand of more than 50 percent, and this year we'll hit 85GW, doubling the amount of installed solar PV we saw in 2014. And GTM projects that demand for solar power will continue to rise. Plummeting costs for solar and other enabling technologies have driven the global-market into a new era of solar production. India’s Minister for Power, Coal, New & Renewable Energy and Mines reported in April on a record low price for solar power in a competitive auction: 3.15 rupees (5 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour.

It's no surprise that 27 US cities (that number growing) have committed to a 100% renewable energy plan. The numbers are working out in a time when governments (and their associated utilities) are under increasing pressure to be competitive and actually accountable to their constituents. Change is underway, my friends, regardless of the current federal domestic energy policies in the US. 

Take a look at the graphs.

 Courtesy of GTM Research.

Courtesy of GTM Research.

 
 Courtesy of The Solar Foundation.

Courtesy of The Solar Foundation.

I'll offer here a platitude my father used to repeat when I was growing up (Happy Birthday Dad!). He always always told me to "follow the money" when trying to get to the reality of a situation. In keeping that advice, I found that major investors on the global stage are allocating serious funding for solar infrastructure projects and companies. Solar energy is no longer the minor league, marginalized energy technology that it was reduced to in years passed. It's got real potential to literally change the world we live in. I heard Erik Solheim, the executive director of UN Environment, on Morning Edition just this morning and was reminded of his vision for clean energy technologies in the world:

Ever-cheaper clean tech provides a real opportunity for investors to get more for less. This is exactly the kind of situation, where the needs of profit and people meet, that will drive the shift to a better world for all.
— Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment

So What? 

This kind of reporting is somewhat tangential from a building science perspective, but when we consider what's on the receiving end of the solar PV market evolution, we're talking about human beings. And we can't talk about human beings without talking about health, and that absolutely pertains to building science. If we're not prioritizing health and only looking at energy, we're letting the tail wag the dog.

With such a prominent and contentious national conversation on the dismantling of environmental regulations and whether clean energy has a future in the US, I'd like to remind us all to take a step back and look at how we directly impact our clients' lives as professionals. I'm not suggesting we discard the importance of renewables (just look at all the data I just presented!), but I am suggesting that we need to bring another major variable into the conversation as priority #1 - humans. 

We spend 70% of our lives in our homes and if we deliver those home with health as our organizing principle, we have the potential to drive the conversation toward better energy solutions naturally. Design around people, a good building follows. 

An energy declaration without a declaration related to the indoor environment makes no sense.
— Dr. Fergus Nicol (Professor Emeritus of Architecture, Oxford Brookes University)

There are clearly demonstrable benefits of a cleaner energy economy to the planet and to our client's pocket-books. We should be advocating for solar PV as concerned professionals in the AEC industry. The global trends are self-evident - we're pacing quickly toward a solar powered world and you need to keep tabs on what that means to your business, your ethos, and your projects. But if we're not keeping up with how our buildings function and provide a healthy environment for the occupants, the energy delivery vehicle doesn't matter. 

If we actually focused on solving the mean radiant temperature problems with enclosure performance we would solve the energy and thermal comfort problems in buildings.
— Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L.(Eng.), Healthy Heating

Grid competitive renewables are here and they're going to shape the way we deliver energy to the built environment. It's on us to know how our buildings are receiving that energy and whether the building is serving the occupants' health or if it's just "green" for the sake of being so. Don't let the tail wag the dog. Focus on delivering a healthy building and the rest will follow.

Now get out there and make it happen, folks - for the times, they are a changing.


 

*Did you know that the new non-roof Tesla Solar panel is produced by Panasonic? 

Texas' First Radiant Cooling & Heating System (That We Know Of) by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts! 

We're delighted to share with you all that we've completed the installation of the first radiant cooling & heating system installed in Texas (that we know of). You might be saying to yourself now "wait a minute, I've totally seen radiant heated floors in Texas before. What are you talking about?" and you'd be correct. The system we're talking about is a bit different for a few reasons - it's not in the floor AND it's not just a heating system. It's a cooling and heating system that sits in the ceiling of our office. If that sounds crazy to you, well... it is. Keep reading. This was a serious research and development project for Positive Energy and we felt like it was kind of a crazy endeavor too.

It all started when Kristof took a course on mechanical systems with a man named Robert Bean (who is a Canadian gentleman genius and founder of healthyheating.com), who referred us to a book by Kiel Moe called Thermally Active Surfaces In Architecture. It's a phenomenal book. 

But don't just take my word for it. You'll find  some beautiful excerpts and graphics from the book's introduction throughout the remainder of this post. 

Why do we heat and cool buildings with air? How did a thermodynamically and physiologically irrational medium of heat transfer - air - become the dominant method of heating and cooling buildings?
— Kiel Moe, Thermally Active Surfaces In Architecture
Water And Air - Kiel Moe

"Water is 832 times denser than air."

"Energy Density is directly related to the density of a material. Water can capture and channel far more energy per unit volume than air. Thermally active surfaces are built around this basic principle."

The human body is a hydronic, thermally active surface system. Heat energy is transferred in and around a body through the hydronic circulatory system. The heart circulates heat through the blood back and forth between the core of the body to its skin, a thermally active surface. Its thermal system is decoupled from its ventilation system.
— Kiel Moe, Thermally Active Surfaces In Architecture
Radiant Cooling Kiel Moe

"Thermally active surfaces in buildings follow this logic, literally." 

 

This alters energy consumption and amends human comfort. Thermally active surfaces in buildings are not metaphors for the body and do not mimic a natural system. Rather, they share the same thermo-dynamical system. In this century, building science and systems will follow how the body actually functions. 

Obviously we were interested in exploring this kind of technology for many reasons. In fact, we did an entire podcast episode on the basic principles of radiant heating and cooling very early on in our podcast tenure. It was then that we saw the spark. We knew we were onto something. But given the fact that accommodating supply chains are virtually non-existent here in Texas, we looked west to California. That's where we found Messana. They're a manufacturer of radiant heating and cooling panels (thermally active surfaces) out of Italy and Santa Cruz, CA. We were so excited about meeting them that we did another podcast episode on radiant heating and cooling systems during our California visit a couple of years ago. 

If you haven't subscribed to our podcast yet, shame on you. Get to it! 

What was so immediately striking to me about this technology was the fundamental shift in thinking about how we heat/cool spaces. We've all seen radiators used in heating dominant climates and chilling beams used for commercial applications in cooling dominant climates, but never before had I conceived of turning the actual building surfaces into radiant surfaces. It took some time for me to wrap my mind around, especially the specifics of avoiding condensation, putting fluid in the ceiling, etc. 

More from Kiel Moe on the matter: 

Cooling is a deceptive concept. If a building does not get hot, it does not need to be ‘cooled.’ Thermally active surfaces ‘cool’ by continuously removing heat energy. This is fundamentally different from air based approaches to cooling. If a surface is cooler than the bodies and objects in its space, it is removing heat from those objects and has the effect of cooling. There is no circumstance when the surface temperature should be near or at the dew point temperature to heat or ‘cool’ a space. As such, condensation is not an impediment to thermally active surfaces. 
— Kiel Moe, Thermally Active Surfaces In Architecture

There is that fundamental shift - high temp cooling and low temp heating. It seems paradoxical, but it actually makes perfect sense when you take a look at the way heat transfer occurs. 

Energy Use.jpg

Thermally active surfaces utilize low-supply temperature heating and high-supply temperature cooling to achieve human comfort.  

This can save an immense amount of energy in the next century of building.

So there we were with all of this novel information about how the AEC industry is literally staring down the barrel of its own revolution, and we just couldn't let it lie. Gathering the chutzpah to pull this installation off was not exactly an easy process. Very early on, we were presented with a number of challenges that slowed us down and puzzled us. Were this an air-based VRF system, we would have had massive resources to leverage more or less at-will, but with a radiant technology, the local trade and manufacturing infrastructure to install is virtually non-existent in the Texas market right now. Add to this the fact that we had only theoretical expertise in how this could work and you have an installation requiring a significant amount of organization without a lot of organization. But we're suckers for a little bit of self inflicted pain so we rallied behind the general level of excitement to follow through. We worked with Messana, SpacePak, UltraAire, and assembled the "big pieces" of the installation. 


 Smiling Faces On Installation Day 1

Smiling Faces On Installation Day 1

With the help of our good friend  Greg Cross out of Santa Cruz, CA (former Messana installer and wihz) we gathered the necessary equipment, ordered plenty of tacos, and got to work. There's a lot involved - sweating copper, running pex, hanging sheetrock, schematic layouts, system commissioning. Please don't try this at home unless you've got a professional on board or you're just averse to keeping your wallet full.

At this point you might be wondering "what the heck does a system like this even look like?" Well you're in luck - Matt Risinger came over to take a tour. 

We also made a pretty geeky video walking you through the whole thing in more detail.

As you can see, it's a complicated system, but the benefits of a low exergy system like this are bountiful.

  • Incredibly Low Site Energy Usage
  • Simulated Mass
  • Quiet Operation
  • Improved Thermal Well Being
Heat Transfer.jpg

Heat Transfer

"How did a thermodynamically irrational medium of heat transfer -air- become the dominant method of heating and cooling buildings?

Here are some highlights of the installation: 

It fortuitously happened that day that the morning outdoor temps started in the 50s and climbed into the upper 80s by afternoon. We had opportunity to use both system modes after we finally got the system turned on. And of course, we got out the IR cameras in both heating and cooling modes.


Radiant Diagram Kiel Moe

What would change if we heated and cooled buildings with water rather than air? 

 

Thermally active surfaces stand to advance architecture’s practices and performances: its techniques, technologies, professional and ecological sustainability, budgets, and formal possibilities.

Thermally active building surfaces is a technique that promises to finally dissolve the fallacy of fragmented architectural design, building science, and their pedagogies.
— Kiel Moe, Thermally Active Surfaces

If this maxim holds true, then our office should be the coolest one on the block (pardon the pun). We're thrilled to have this system in our office and can't wait to have you over to check it out. Let us know next time you'll be in the neighborhood and we'll see about having you over to check out our 8th wonder of the world.  

And remember, all of this madness is because we see the clear future for architecture and construction in one simple phrase:

Design Around People A Good Building Follows

Want To See It In Person?

Thursday, June 22

Please join us to get an in-person tour of our radiant system and discussion about the benefits and future of systems like this:

  • Bring the beer/wine you love along with an open mind.
  • Come to our office at 1206 B South 3rd, Austin, TX 78704
    • Please respect our neighbors by parking along 3rd street near the park
  • Show up at 4:30PM, leave at 6:00PM

Big thanks to our friends at Messana for their generous material, intellectual, and financial support of this system. Without their help, it wouldn't have been even remotely possible. Check out their amazing products yourself and don't hesitate to reach out to us with more questions about how it all works 

Reinventing Construction by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts!

Miguel here waxing philosophical again for your leisure and edification. Recently the McKinsey Global Institute (a private think-tank dedicated to offering ideas to move the global economy forward) released a study  outlining the state of the construction industry along with a set of forward-thinking solutions they see to increase productivity in the construction sector. The sheer scale of the report is remarkable, as should any globally applied perspective should be, and had some useful insights for those of us who think about the built environment. 

I've outlined some of the resonant highlights herein. Let's begin with their infographic and get more granular from there.

 Courtesy of McKinsey Global Institute

Courtesy of McKinsey Global Institute

The Claims

Their premise begins with the somewhat startling fact that the construction sector, compared to the productivity of the rest of the global economy, is both stifled and laggard.

Globally, construction sector labor-productivity growth averaged 1 percent a year over the past two decades, compared with 2.8 percent for the total world economy and 3.6 percent for manufacturing. In a sample of countries analyzed, less than 25 percent of construction firms matched the productivity growth achieved in the overall economies where they work over the past decade.

It's important to note here that productivity is almost always never a good proxy for quality, but the causal factors of stifled productivity and poor quality may be shared. And while productivity remains a top priority for every industry, it is the humble opinion of this writer that continuing to argue that markets are naturally efficient as thinkers like Hegel have so staunchly done in the past, is a moot point. If you need proof, take a walk through a production grade subdivision sometime. Construction regulation was necessitated by the inefficiency and disorganization of the construction sector and its decreased focus on occupant (human) outcomes. We could get into the mire of detail regarding code and regulations and exactly how they "slow things down," but that argument is looking at the wrong end of the stick. If you're ever in Austin and up for a conversation over a beer, I'll explain the fallacies of.

Global Economy Construction Deficit

The big thing to take away here is that this lapse in productivity is currently leaving a lot of money on the table. What's even more interesting to me is that there may be some profound insight into how we improve the quality of our built environment laid up behind the premise of "productivity is broken."

Let's find out. 

The new MGI Construction Productivity Survey confirms many reasons for this poor performance. The industry is extensively regulated, very dependent on public-sector demand, and highly cyclical. Informality and sometimes corruption distort the market. Construction is highly fragmented. Contracts have mismatches in risk allocations and rewards, and often inexperienced owners and buyers find it hard to navigate an opaque marketplace. The result is poor project management and execution, insufficient skills, inadequate design processes, and underinvestment in skills development, R&D, and innovation.

This rings true. Each new degree of fragmentation in the construction industry is one more opportunity for miscommunication and potentially poor delivery. We see it all the time and that's why we're so insistent on integrated design and integrated project delivery. It's the most immediate way to bridge the gap and deliver truly high quality.

The study goes on to suggest that there are ways to improve the productivity and, if done with the right kind of thinking, I posit will improve quality at scale as well. 

Breaking Down The Proposals

Examples of innovative firms and regions suggest that acting in seven areas simultaneously could boost productivity by 50 to 60 percent. They are: reshape regulation; rewire the contractual framework to reshape industry dynamics; rethink design and engineering processes; improve procurement and supply-chain management; improve on-site execution; infuse digital technology, new materials, and advanced automation; and reskill the workforce. Parts of the industry could move toward a manufacturing-inspired mass-production system that would boost productivity up to tenfold. Industrial and infrastructure megaprojects need to instill holistic project-operating systems on-site and in design of offces. The highly non-linear and challenging nature of megaprojects underscores the difficulty of, and necessity for, moving toward an industrialized project-operating system.

Bringing this down to the residential level, I think they're 100% on the mark here with regard to improved productivity and improved quality. Here's the list of their proposed broad stroke changes across the industry for your convenience, along with my brief comments of what each could look like from a localized perspective (be the change you wish to see in the world, right?). 

Reshape Regulation

This is obviously complex and any pithy answer won't fully satiate everyone, but the trends are obvious. There are non-prescriptive standards out there, like the PHIUS+ 2015 Standard, that are almost entirely outcome focused. If this is not obvious, I'm telling you it should be. 

In Austin we've got the Austin Green Building Program, which was a pioneer program and did a lot to move the market here toward a more outcome based approach, but there's still a lot left on the table - especially in regards to the considerations of indoor air quality and energy use. To the builders and architects simply intent on moving product quickly to turn profit, programs like these are a hindrance and that's a big problem when you're talking about industry shifts. 

Something has to change and education is the most powerful tool that regulatory bodies can use to communicate financial benefits as well as human-based outcomes. Reshaping regulation is a lofty goal, but MGI is right in pointing out its necessity. 

Rewire The Contractual Framework To Reshape Industry Dynamics

Contracts are a big deal. There are great legal thinkers like Joe Basham of Allensworth & Porter, LLP. who are on the leading edge of making industry change through better contract processes and improved negotiating communications. As an industry, we need to think about how we can move toward better outcomes and thus less litigation. There is ample opportunity to get things right in delivery and contracts make a big difference in how the built environment is delivered. 

Rethink Design And Engineering Processes

There is more to say here than any of us have time for. Just look at our company, its mission, and by virtue of its existence, the very industry shift we're trying to facilitate. Of course we're focused on the residential market, but there is much to say about how MEP engineers can profoundly change health outcomes of projects if only they'd engage architects earlier and better and stick around through the CA process to ensure things are done well. The same can be said of architects willingness to rely on their consultants' expertise as a means of delivering better projects and building brand strength. 

Improve Procurement And Supply-Chain Management

This is easy to say and vastly complex and difficult to pull off. Just ask any HVAC distributor about it and you'll most likely get an ear-full of creative ideas that get lost in the shuffle of manufacturers' corporate business pacing. Much of the supply-chain management can be consolidated with panelized processes, which we're seeing more and more of with the tiny-house movement. 

Improve On-Site Execution

I can't see any other way to qualify this one except demanding honest, thorough, and quality work. Project managers need to establish the right kinds of feedback loops and inspection protocols to make certain their jobs are being delivered the right way. The study goes on to bring up a few pieces of software and throws out some jargon straight out of the Harvard Business Review, but the bottom line is that quality construction is not accomplished when processes are top heavy. We need experienced and intelligent on-site management to build a better world and it's up to construction firms to be forward thinking about their own processes. 

Also, the better the project is planned and engineered, the better the delivery can be. That should be obvious. 

Infuse Digital Technology, New Materials, And Advanced Automation

They really nailed this one. I'll simply quote them because they did such a good job.

"Companies can start by making 3D building information modeling (BIM) universal within the company alongside use of digital collaboration tools, drones, and unmanned aerial vehicles for scanning, monitoring, and mapping. They can put themselves at the cutting edge by using platforms such as 5D BIM to establish transparency in design, costing, and progress visualization; advanced analytics enabled by the Internet of Things to improve on-site monitoring of materials, labor, and equipment productivity; and digital collaboration and mobility tools (such as construction management apps loaded on mobile devices) to better track progress and collaborate in real time. On-site productivity can be increased by as much as 50 percent by implementing a cloud-based control tower that rapidly assembles accurate data in near real time that is both backward- looking and predictive (for example, using plan conformance and other variability and inventory metrics). Importantly, owners need to ensure that the right data ow through the various owner, contractor, and subcontractor systems. Big data also has a significant role to play. Techniques and data that are readily available today can produce large improvements in the accuracy of cost and schedule estimates as well as engineering productivity. Developing new lightweight materials and construction methodologies such as prefabricated pre- finished volumetric construction can further facilitate off-site fabrication. Advanced automated equipment and tools such as bricklaying and tiling robots can accelerate on-site execution. The introduction of predictive analytics and pattern recognition has enabled far more sophisticated monitoring of construction projects; one example is the network of sensors installed to track the impact of tunneling works for London’s Crossrail project. MGI’s productivity survey indicated that the biggest barriers to innovation by construction companies are underinvestment in IT and technology more broadly, and a lack of R&D processes. Establishing innovation of officers can make a difference for technology adoption."

The big caveat here is that in a vacuum, this piece of the puzzle is useless. We need integrated project teams to pull any of this off. Revit is a big deal for us, but without good project team integration it would be useless. 

Reskill The Workforce

Again, they summarized this one nicely. 

"Change in the construction sector cannot be achieved without investment in retooling a workforce that is aging and changing its makeup through migration. Construction firms and workers need to continuously reskill and train to use the latest equipment and digital tools. In the mix should be apprenticeship programs such as the one run by Siemens in the United Kingdom, training frontline workers in core skills that are currently underdeveloped; and increasing stability in the workforce by breaking seasonality and cyclicality."

If you're not learning, you're not growing. And to say "Son, I've been doing this for 30 years" is absolutely not a credential when the fundamental building physics have changed so much in that time-span. 

Wrapping Up

Overall, this was a really excellent and insightful study. My biggest disappointment is that their metrics do not look at quality of the built environment as much of a metric of progress as productivity. Of course I'd love to see mention of passive house degrees of progress as their end-goal, just like many of us are pushing for here with Passive House Austin.  HOPEFULLY the proposals they've laid out, if achieved, have the unintended side-effect of quality. Regardless, the study is thought-provoking and is a great reminder of how big our role is in the global economy as actors in the AEC industry. What we do has serious implications world-wide.

As thinkers in the industry it's important to stay on the forefront of where things are headed. We'll continue to bring you digested thoughts on studies just like these. 

Ming Rebrands Positive Energy by Positive Energy

Kristof asked his daughter, Ming, to take a stab at drawing our logo. Here's what she came up with:

Ming Positive Energy Logo

We talk a lot about human factored building design, but what about the humans doing the science too? We think she's onto something here. Humans designing (and science-ing) for humans. It's how we're building the future together.

And last but not least, Ming's class took on the task of writing and performing a jingle for the company. We present in full, the new Positive Energy jingle. 

Design Around People, A Good Building Follows by Positive Energy

The illustrious and ever gracious Robert Bean coined this phrase and we've adopted it as a rallying slogan. It's absolutely true, too. When human occupancy is the primary focus, we drop the pretense of oculocentrism and we prioritize what matters. If human beings can't thrive in their spaces (especially their homes), then what exactly are we delivering to society via the built environment? 

Design Around People, A Good Building Follows

Foresight & The Built Environment by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts, Michael (Miguel) here writing down a few musings for your edification and leisure. 

Our colleague Bill Aylor over at Lake|Flato recently sent us a fantastic interview featured in Doggerel (a site run by Arup, a global firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants) on the Future of The Built Environment. In the interview, Dr. Gereon Uerz, a sociologist and consultant, unpacks the idea of corporate foresight and how it can be used as a strategy for making positive change in the way the built environment is designed and delivered. If you've got the time to read the article, I highly recommend it. If you don't have time to read it, here are a few takeaways that impacted me as they relate to Positive Energy. The quotes herein are pulled from Dr. Uerz's interview. 

What Is Corporate Foresight?

Corporate foresight provides evidence-based ideas about possible future developments based on ongoing trends. It gathers and analyzes information about things going on within a society and on a global level, then uses this information for business operations, especially in the fields of innovation, strategy, change management, and risk analysis.

There is a heavy trend in business the last few decades pushing for more data driven decision making. And for our purposes, we're talking about the data that speaks to a necessity for better, higher quality buildings. This trend hasn't fully made it to the larger construction market yet.

Cheap tract homes and suburbanization are in rapid expansion mode across the US, homogenizing architecture and lowering the bar for construction quality. Health problems caused by indoor environmental issues are only just beginning to make their public debut. And yet for many professionals, the only data driving decision making in design and on job sites are first cost. Foresight strategy likely hasn't proliferated into the AEC industry because old guard practices are comfortable and because it's difficult to fully understand the global implications of first-cost driven decision making. It's become normalized to "value engineer" which actually means "removing otherwise crucial pieces of a building for more expensive countertops and the like." 

But there are those of us who are the vanguard. There are a brave few who are weathering the tide to build profitable business operations around better decision making, prioritizing data driven decisions (like better air quality, energy usage, etc.) that are also profitable to the future of our ecological and societal positions. It's an aberrant thing to do, but the tipping point is now well within in range. People are telling/hearing countless stories of health impacts from houses that made them sick. We're better understanding the ecological impacts of our building practices more and more every day. It's a new industry milieu and it's a big deal.

How Does Positive Energy Fit Into The Equation?

We see ourselves at Positive Energy as an avid user of corporate foresight strategy. We've used it to do something a bit odd in the residential construction market - to deliver high quality and thorough HVAC designs and to verify that the systems get installed correctly.

On most residential projects, the HVAC design is left to installers and is almost an afterthought. Project economics have squeezed the delivery process of a building into this shape because nobody was challenging it. We're disrupting the notion that mechanical engineers should not be involved in custom residential markets simply because the old market dynamics dictated such. We're breaking into the habitual mind of architects, installers, builders, and by proxy, homeowners. 

This idea didn't come to life from some vague intuition or a gamble on entrepreneurial ambition. We've built our business by absorbing data points from a wide range of industries and market trends. We've consumed information intensely and it has shaped our perspective on the world - specifically regarding the built environment. Since our business was founded, we focused that perspective of the industry into an incubator of innovation. We knew we needed a deep knowledge of building science and we knew we had to keep the lights on in the office. We could offer that perspective and depth of knowledge somehow, although we didn't necessarily know how it would pan out. So we experimented with the business model... a lot.  

In the past we offered deep energy retrofits, testing services, owners representative services, building science consulting, enclosure consulting, mechanical consulting, HERS ratings, passive house rating, etc. We were trying to see what would really stick and what had staying power. It took a moment to settle in (7+ years trying to find that signature service that worked for everyone), but our use of foresight strategy paid off. We have since created a great service and profitable business that challenges the status quo, leaving serious questions with our clientele - questions about what what we're doing with the built environment. And we'll continue to use this strategy to innovate and bring more services to market that are not only useful, but crucial. 

We like to think that our foresight strategy works both internally to encourage innovation, but also at the market/industry levels to use that innovation for better built outcomes. 

If you do foresight, you are not just exceeding the usual time horizon of a company, but challenging some of its core assumptions. You’re not there to provide answers; you’re there to address the most relevant questions. You do a good job if the people who commissioned you end up with one more question than they had before. If they have one more answer, it’s what they want and expect, but I don’t think you’ve done a good job. Because when you’re talking about tomorrow, well, they’re not there yet, and you’re just groping in the dark. If you shine light on some areas that are just emerging and ask “What could that mean for you?” you’re doing a good job.

Integrated Mechanical Design

My hopeful assumption is that Positive Energy's efforts in bringing Integrated Mechanical Design to market has not only created the question Dr. Uerz wants asked, but also answers at least part of it. Our company's rhetoric is designed to leave with architecture firms the idea that more is possible, sensible, and reasonable. And our Integrated Mechanical Design service provides architecture firms with a means to bridge the gap. 

We want to help projects reduce risk and overall cost by shifting the way budgets are utilized. For now, we're using our IMD service to make transactional and positive changes for residential projects by helping architects and their clients prioritize the budget by encouraging data driven decision making. If you could cut 25ish square feet of your total floor plan to free up enough budget to ensure that the health and comfort delivery system of your home are designed and installed well, wouldn't that make sense? And by using the same foresight strategy, we're currently developing energy modeling services that will help projects make better systems decisions before it's too late to go back and change things without incurring major costs. If you could know more accurately how much solar PV you needed, wouldn't you want to save that money and use it elsewhere in the budget? 

Telling or even insinuating to architects and their clients that their budget priorities are misaligned with reality is not often a fun conversation. And not every architect gets it nor agrees. But there are those who do. They're paying attention to global trends. They're trusting their consultants to make decisions with expertise. 

It hasn't been easy, but the fundamental motivation for our building such an unusual business is quite simple actually. We want to transform the way that the built environment is delivered. In the long-term sense we want to usher in a new practical philosophy in our industry - prioritizing design and integrated project delivery as a means to improve how buildings affect occupants. Unlike other industries, we have the unique position to make an incredibly lasting impact. Whether that impact is good for society or bad is riding on all our shoulders.

The Future

The built environment has long planning cycles, there’s a huge investment that goes into it, and almost all ongoing megatrends — demographic change, urbanization, digitization, sustainability — are highly relevant. The leverage that you have is much bigger than in the consumer goods industry or others that operate on very short cycles.

While the road less traveled pioneering our way into residential engineering has been somewhat lonely and daunting, Positive Energy is seeing real results. We have not only begun to make changes here in Austin via our IMD service, but we've also positioned ourselves to scale the business beyond our local market. We're excited for what the future holds and we truly see each of our clients as a crucial part of that. If we can make good design decisions together and coordinate project delivery together, we can really lead the market and, in some ways, the industry together.

The trends aren't going away. Cities are growing and changing. Codes are changing. Home building is changing and the demands are more stringent. The planet is changing and we've got to be good stewards.

If you don't think we're telling the truth, look at the science on indoor air quality. Look at what the economists and sociologists are saying about demographic trends. Look at the transition underway in the energy sector. Look beyond short-term politics at the critical mass that our planet will hit as we urbanize and our population tops. We've entered an age where building science really matters. It matters because people want data to back up their decisions. It matters because those same people are going to be living in the buildings we're talking about and that is an immersive experience. If they're immersed in crap, the health and comfort outcomes are going to be crap. 

Only together can we keep that from happening and build a better future for society and the planet. At Positive Energy, we're confident that we can do it. I hope you'll join us in that rally cry.

One final thought from Dr. Uerz:

Buildings and infrastructure can provide ecosystem services just like nature does, but we don’t know to what extent, where it is applicable, and what solutions are already available... Since we aren’t going to stop covering the earth’s surface with infrastructure and buildings, we need to think really hard about how to make this beneficial in terms of services. If the built environment does nothing other than just accommodate people or host cars, it’s a missed opportunity.

This is history in the making and none of us know exactly what it looks like, but we shouldn't miss this opportunity. Let's get to work.