Legislation to Make More Efficient Homes

  • The bill would require new homes to immediately be 30% more energy efficient. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

This session of Congress has pledged to take on
the issue of climate change. A bill in the Senate
is already awaiting action. But the House has
already passed the sweeping Clean Energy And
Security Act. One piece of that bill could change
the way homes are built in this country. In short,
they’d use a lot less energy. Tamara Keith has more:

Transcript

This session of Congress has pledged to take on
the issue of climate change. A bill in the Senate
is already awaiting action. But the House has
already passed the sweeping Clean Energy And
Security Act. One piece of that bill could change
the way homes are built in this country. In short,
they’d use a lot less energy. Tamara Keith has more:

The bill would require a re-write of building codes. New homes would immediately have to be 30% more energy efficient. And the requirements would keep getting tougher from there.

The idea is controversial. But for Alex Dean, building efficiently is just the way he does business.

“It’s building to a higher standard. And we really enjoy building fine projects for people who want it done right.”

Dean is the CEO of the Alexander Group, a home design, build and renovation firm in Maryland. He’s showing me around a green remodel.

(sound of key in door)

“This is the entry from the garage into the new addition.”

Dean and his team are putting an addition on a home in an upscale Washington, DC suburb.

He’s designed every detail with an eye to energy efficiency, starting with the insulation. He used a spray foam. It costs about twice as much as the insulation required by current building codes.

“You know, it’s worth it, and in the overall scheme of building the house, it’s not that much money.”

On this hot humid day, you can feel the difference the fancy insulation makes.

Keith: “It’s cooler than it is outside.

Dean: “Yeah, yeah.”

Keith: “And there’s no AC running in here right now.”

Dean: “No, not at all. And this building is directly in the sun. But that’s how effective this is. This is keeping some of the coolness from last night when it was in the 60s.”

That means he can install smaller heating and air conditioning units that use less energy.

The windows are double paned. The lights, all compact fluorescents or super efficient LEDs.

It’s projects like this one that make Bill Fay confident home builders will be able to handle greener building codes. Fay is the executive director of the Building Energy Efficient Codes Network.

“We know it’s achievable. And we know it’s achievable using affordable technologies. It’s just now a matter to have the resolve to do it.”

Past efforts at greening the building codes met with stiff opposition from home builders and failed to make it through congress.

Koteri Callahan is president of the Alliance to Save Energy and she says the stakes are high. Buildings are huge energy wasters.

“Every house and every office building that goes in the ground today is going to be around for decades and decades and in some cases centuries.”

But these days, the ground isn’t being broken on very many homes. The industry is in a serious slump.

Bill Kilmer is the head of advocacy for the National Association of Home Builders and he doesn’t want members of congress to forget about the industry’s struggles.

“Consumers certainly in the last year are stepping back and said, ‘what can we afford.’ And so we’re trying to take a mainstream, if you will, that says, ‘people want this.’ How can we get to that point, and how can we get there reasonably, and take afford-ability into account.”

Kilmer says the building industry is taking environmental issues seriously, and recently created a voluntary green building certification program.

But, he says the House bill moves too far too fast. He says builders would like until 2012 to meet the 30% efficiency goal.

“You really don’t have the equipment or the materials that are ready and ramped up to make the adjustments in the marketplace to bring those things to bear, without a tremendous cost burden that’ll be added on to the production of the housing and that obviously is going to be passed on to someone, and that’ll be the consumer.”

This question of affordability is a big one. And it seems like everyone has a statistic to make their point.


For The Environment Report, I’m Tamara Keith.

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Nature on a Concrete Canvas

  • Artist Christopher Griffin, the owner of the house, uses a long smooth bone to draw a picture after each swipe of the trowel (Photo by Karen Kelly)

Sometimes cities can seem like drab, impersonal places. But every once in a
while, you see a building that stops you in your tracks. Karen Kelly tells a story about a house designed to do just that:

Transcript

Sometimes cities can seem like drab, impersonal places. But, every once in a
while, you see a building that stops you in your tracks. Karen Kelly tells a story
about a house designed to do just that:


(sound of construction and trucks)

When you first see it, you’re just not sure.

A two-story house is being covered with marks etched in concrete.

Is it intentional? Or just a layer of construction?

Then you see a large black figure on the west side of the house and realize- oh, it’s
a whale. Waves are etched in the concrete around it. Walk around the corner and
you see flocks of birds flying over roughly drawn buildings.

(sound of scraping)

And just past the birds, there are three men working silently on a platform. Two
are spreading layers of fresh concrete.

The third is artist Christopher Griffin, the owner of the house. He uses a long
smooth bone to draw a picture after each swipe of the trowel – and before the
concrete sets.

He says he has to work fast.

“They would scrape the mud on and I would be going around them, over top of
them, actually right behind their trowel and there’s no chance to stand back; there’s
no chance to second guess.”

Griffin has been a professional artist in Ottawa, Canada for almost twenty years.

Griffin’s motivation was simple: his house really needed a new exterior. But the
regular stuff that people put on their houses didn’t feel right to him.

Instead, he thought he’d try some drawings like he’d seen in a photo of mud huts in
Africa.

“It was irregular; it was organic; it wasn’t pristine; it wasn’t crisp; it wasn’t
heartless. And that sort of quality was something I was after.”

(sound of chatting and scraping)

But while Griffin had this vision of giant sunflowers and caribou, contractors had
no idea what he was talking about.

Several told him it couldn’t be done.

Dan Charette is part of a team that was willing to give it a try.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to bring our craftsmanship to a different level. There’s
a whole other creative level to what we do here with constructive behaviors, so it’s
really a lot of fun.”

For instance, the contractors suggested adding fly ash to the cement. It’s a
byproduct of burning coal and it also makes the cement more elastic.

Griffin liked that it was more environmentally friendly.

He also recycled building materials and added solar panels. But usually that’s not
what people see.

He says what really makes him feel good is when people just stop and stare.

“Absolute strangers stopping their cars, getting out and having a look. There’s a
teenage skateboarder who stopped and said, ‘Wow, awesome house.’”

Griffin says, in that way, his house has become a public space.

In fact, he argues everyone’s house is a public space.

And he suggests people think about what they want their house to say to someone
walking by.

For The Environment Report, I’m Karen Kelly.

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Construction Sites Mucking Up Rivers

  • The EPA says sediment runoff rates from construction sites are typically 10 to 20 times greater than from farmland. (Photo courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction)

Some home builders say the housing market
is tough enough. They don’t need environmental
regulations that make it tougher on them. But
some “green” builders say the housing industry
can improve the environment, do the right thing
for communities, and still make money. Julie Grant
reports:

Transcript

Some home builders say the housing market
is tough enough. They don’t need environmental
regulations that make it tougher on them. But
some “green” builders say the housing industry
can improve the environment, do the right thing
for communities, and still make money. Julie Grant
reports:

Have you ever driven by a construction site and seen all that dirt? A lot of that dirt is washed off the site by
rainstorms and ends up in local creeks and rivers.

Russ Gibson is with Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
He says that dirt kills aquatic bugs and fish.

The dirt covers up gravel bottom streams – that fills holes
where bugs want to live. If bugs can’t live it mucks up the
food chain. Gibson says fishermen know when this
happens.

“You’ll have some of the smaller fish and the bait fish, like
minnows and darters, will feed on the small bugs that live
there. If you don’t have bugs to feed the bait fish you don’t
have bait fish to feed the big fish.”

Beyond that, the silt from construction sites can also muddy
up where fish lay their eggs.

And enough construction dirt can fill a stream so much that it
can make flooding more of a problem.

So, how much dirt are we talking about?

The EPA estimates that 20 to 150 tons of soil per acre is lost
to storm water runoff from construction sites.

That means every time a new house is built, truckloads of
soil can wind up in local streams.

If a homebuilder pulled a truck up to a bridge and dumped a
load of dirt into a creek, people would scream. But because
construction site runoff is gradual and not as obvious,
builders get away with it.

Lance Schmidt is a builder. But he’s not your typical builder.
They used to call him a “tree-hugger builder.” These days
he’s seen as a trend setter.

Schmidt says nobody in the building industry is talking much
about construction silt.

“Believe me, stormwater’s not a fun issue to talk about. (laughs)”

But it’s one of the biggest pollution problems in creeks and
rivers.

Schmidt’s crew just dug a hole for the foundation of a small
house. He’s climbs up on one of four mounds of dirt. He
knows when it rains, some dirt can get washed away, and
end up in a nearby river. That’s why he puts up sediment
barriers. But most of the time no one checks to see if he
does.

“There aren’t any regulations as far as I know. I mean other
than if somebody was to complain.”

The Environmental Protection Agency in Ohio says it does
regulate construction sites. But, usually just the larger ones,
where there might be problems. The homebuilding industry
doesn’t really think it’s the problem.

Vince Squallice is director of the Ohio Homebuilders
Association.

“Construction and earth disturbing activities in construction is
not causing the siltation problem in Ohio.”

Squallice says farmers are mostly to blame for dirt runoff in
the rivers. It’s true that sediment runoff from farms is a huge
problem. But the EPA says sediment runoff rates from
construction sites are typically 10 to 20 times greater than
from farmland.

Squallice says builders already have to deal with too many
regulations such as setbacks from streams.

“Some of the regulations recommended to protect streams go
overboard in terms of environmental protection.”

Squallice says because of the housing bust, it’s a time to
help homebuilders, not enforce more environmental
regulations.

Builder Lance Schmidt says homebuilders need to look at it
a little differently. They can help solve a problem, keep
streams clean, and help cities with flooding problems.

“And that’s the avenue that I’ve decided to attack at. Rather
than attack the regulations, let’s sit back and find ways that
we can actually do this.”

Schmidt says there are lots of creative building ideas that
can reduce flooding, and improve the rivers for fish and other
wildlife. But in this competitive market, builders won’t do it
until everyone has to play by the same rules. And he
doesn’t expect that to happen without better enforcement by
regulators.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Crafting a House From Scrap Lumber

  • Kelvin Potter on the third floor of the house he's building with scrap lumber. (Photo by Chris McCarus)

One man and a few of his friends are using some old-fashioned methods and some cutting edge techniques to build an environmentally friendly house. The builders are also using a lot of material that other people would throw away. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:

Transcript

One man and a few of his friends are using some old-fashioned methods
and some cutting edge techniques to build an environmentally-friendly house.
The builders are also using a lot of material that other people would throw
away. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:


Four men are raising a timber frame house on an old farm
in central Michigan. Several feet up in the air, they’re piecing together
some beams, 12 feet long and 12 inches thick with some help from a small
crane.


(Sound of engine)


“Cable it! Cable it! Cable it? Yes!”


(Sound of tool dropping)


The framing is like assembling giant Lincoln Log toys. Neighbor Nick
Van Frankenhuyzen is holding a rope attached to some beams.


“Look at that. Look at how far that is extended. We lifted one of
those beams yesterday by hand and they’re not light. Now this wall has to
come back. This has to pop out again to make that one fit and I don’t
know how that’s gonna happen.”


Facing these kinds of challenges is what people in the green building
movement seem to relish. Kelvin Potter owns this farm. He’s using materials
that most builders overlook.


Potter: “Yeah we saved all these timbers, developers were burning all these.
So. These were all going up in smoke. And some of these logs came off my
neighbor’s property. They had died and were standing. We dragged ’em over here. He planted them. He’s
standing right there.”


Van Frankenhuyzen: “Yeah we’re standing on them. And then Kelvin
said I sure could use them. Because they’re the right size. Go get ’em. So he did. And here they are. Can’t believe it. Much better than firewood.”


Kelvin Potter’s home is one example of a growing trend in green building.
The U.S. Green Building Council includes 4000 member organizations. It’s
created standards for protecting the environment. The standards include
reusing material when it’s possible, using solar and wind energy, renewable
resources, and non-traditional materials. Sometimes from surprising
places.


(Sound of truck)


A city truck dumps wood chips onto a municipal lot. On other days it
dumps logs like sugar maple, oak and pine. The trees came from routine
maintenance of parks, cemeteries and streets.
Kelvin Potter is also here, checking for any fresh deliveries. While other
guys come here to cut the logs with chainsaws for firewood, Potter says he
makes better use of it as flooring or trim. Even saw mills don’t take advantage of this kind of wood. That’s because
trees cut down in backyards often mean trouble for the mills.


“Sawmills typically aren’t interested in this material because there is
hardware, nuts, bolts, nails, clothes lines, all sorts of different things
people have pounded into them by their houses. ”


Potter says sawmills use big machines with expensive blades that get
destroyed. So THEY throw the logs away. Potter instead keeps the logs and
throws away his blades. He uses cheap ones, making it worth the risk.
When it’s finished, Kelvin Potter will have an environmentally friendly
house, even if it doesn’t meet all the criteria to be certified as a “green
building.”


Maggie Fields works for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
She says there are many ways to build green. Anything that helps the
environment is a big improvement on the status quo.


“Every material that we reuse is a material that doesn’t have to be cut
from the woods, if that’s where it’s coming from, or remanufactured. And that means that the pollution that’s associated with that material getting
to that use state isn’t having to be created. So, it doesn’t matter if they
get the green seal. If they’re taking steps along that that’s great.”


(Sound of climbing ladder)


Kelvin Potter is climbing a ladder to the belfry of his new house. He
shows off his shiny steel roof, the kind now covering barns. He compares it
to asphalt shingles.


“It lasts 100 years versus 15, 20 years. We actually fill a lot of landfills with shingles. They don’t compress. They don’t decompose. Steel will
go right back into making more roofing or cars or what not. It’s a win-win
situation. It’s a lot cheaper all around and I can’t see why it’s not a lot
more popular.”


The point Potter and other green builders are trying to make is, good
building material isn’t just the stuff marketed at lumberyards. They say, “Look around. You might be surprised what you can use.”


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

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Ijc Asks States for Asian Carp Barrier Money

  • The Army Corps of Engineers' new barrier will be similar in design to the demonstration project in place now. (Diagram courtesy of USACE)

Officials from a joint U.S./Canada Commission that monitors the health of the Great Lakes is asking states and provinces in the region for help. The International Joint Commission wants the governments to chip in money to make sure that Asian carp don’t invade the Great Lakes and decimate the fishing industry. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Cohen reports:

Transcript

Officials from a joint U.S./Canada Commission that monitors the health
of the Great Lakes is asking states and provinces in the region for
help. The International Joint Commission wants the governments to chip
in money to make sure that Asian carp don’t invade the Great Lakes and
decimate the fishing industry. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill
Cohen reports:


A temporary experimental electronic barrier in the Chicago Ship and
Sanitary Canal is the only thing keeping Asian Carp from swimming into
Lake Michigan. That’s why the federal government and Illinois have
allocated 6.7 million dollars to build a new permanent fence.


But now, the builders say they need an extra 1.8 million dollars to complete
the work. That’s why the International Joint Commission is asking all the
states and provinces that have a stake in the dilemma to come up with
that cash. John Nevin is a policy advisor for the IJC. He says if the
older barrier fails or the new one doesn’t work right, the carp will
wreak havoc with the Great Lakes:


“What they do is they swim along with mouths wide open and they filter
feed. They eat all the plankton and all the little stuff that little fish eat,
so they would potentially rob all the other fish in the lake of their food.”


Ohio’s Governor Bob Taft heads the Council of Great Lakes Governors.
He’s seeking input from other governors so he can issue a response soon
to the plea for money.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bill Cohen in Columbus.

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