Monthly Archives: February 2012

Radical Efficiency: Buildings that never sleep

It’s almost 9 am. My son left for school an hour ago, I’ll be taking off soon for work. Upstairs, one set of tenants is gone for the day, or maybe one of them is still sleeping. My dad is probably reading in bed or getting his second cup of coffee. Downstairs the baby might be sleeping while his dad does a bit of telecommuting.

My apartment will soon be totally empty, and my setback thermostat will turn the heat down to 60F, any lower and pipes could freeze. No one will be be in this space until 6pm tonight or later, since I’ll probably go up to my dad’s apartment for dinner. At work, no one has been there all weekend, but the thermostats are not setback, and sometimes people drop in to work, so the place has been at 70F or so for days with no occupants.

How many houses across town are empty and warm all day? How many offices are empty and warm all night and weekend? How crazy is this in a place where we must heat unoccupied buildings to keep them functional, and given that fuel for heating costs money and causes environmental harm? The easiest ways to conserve are where no one ends up with a lower quality of life from the conservation – turning lights off in room that no one is in, unplugging chargers that aren’t charging, not heating a whole space that no one is in – right?

So what do we do? Is there a way to heat just the pipes in danger of freezing without that costing more and being more of a pain? A well designed passive house might be fine with the heat totally off for a couple of days – well-sealed walls with thick insulation and well-designed pipe placement could keep them above freezing, but then you always need some time to get the space back up to temperature. What about designing spaces to be continuously occupied? Restaurants that became bars in the evening, or pool halls, or theaters or something, only to become bakeries early in the morning as the late night revelers left. Homes that became offices or chiropractic/massage spaces or daycares. Shops that became studios for insomniac artists. Hospitals that became, um hospitals.

I know zoning, licensing, habit, limiting architecture and a number of other things would need to change for this to be more widespread. Of course, there are people that work from a home office or have a home daycare. However, we are so caught up in looking professional – if you run that engineering firm out of your house (with a few employees telecommuting in from their houses), or a state office, or a non-profit you risk losing credibility in others’ eyes. I mean, this isn’t the middle ages, where the cobbler sleeps over his shop, and his apprentice sleeps in the shop! Where the state office (the castle) is the home to the leaders and employees and household help as well.

But if we could design a world with spaces occupied 24-7, at least in cold climates, think about all that non-wasted heat energy! That’s not to mention possible transportation fuel savings from working from home as well, as seems to be more commonly discussed.

City Diner - currently closed 11pm to 6am, but it has good liver

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State of the Ecoplex

About three years ago (6 months after purchasing the 4-plex), I wrote up a 1 page explanation sheet to hand out to prospective/new tenants to explain the eco-plex. I realize that some things have happened since then – maybe not as much as I’d ideally like to have gotten done, but some! Here is the updated explanation sheet, starred items are new in this 3 years):
winter at the 'plex

What makes these eco-apartments??

We are committed to the protection of the environment. Every decision on maintaining, upgrading, and using the building is looked at from the angle of how this will impact the earth and the health of the people that live there. We also want this to be a happy place to live.

Some of the things we have already done (in a bit over 3 years):

-Replaced the old water heaters with a new, much more efficient one
-Replaced light bulbs with compact fluorescents and LEDs
-installed low-flow devices on faucets and low-flow shower heads
-installed water saving toilets in two units
-fixed drips and leaks to save water and energy
-had an assessment done for solar hot water
-weather sealed where possible
-installed an outdoor security light with daylight sensor
-provided on-site recycling services
-providing on-site composting*
-permaculture/food forest upgrading of the yard (fruit trees, garden space for tenants, chicken tractor)*
-new coin-op dryer that allows you to save if you use less energy to dry*
-replaced 2 fridges with energy star fridges*
-replaced one dishwasher with an energy star model*
-had an energy audit to find the most effective measures for saving energy*
-wrapped the building in 4 inches of foam insulation*
-provided a timer for engine block heaters*
-do all snow and yard maintenance by hand (shovels and scythes, no fossil fuels)
-installed programmable thermostats

Some of the things we are planning for the future:

-install solar hot water
-separately metering for electric so that tenants can keep track of their use
-painting, repairing, and upgrading the building with used or green products
-install secure bike parking
-install clothes drying lines in unit bathrooms
-add a greenhouse and water-catchment in the garden

However, our behavior and use patterns are important too!
Things we encourage everyone to do:

– Turn off lights and appliances when not in use
– close windows when the heat is on
– use your programmable thermostat to turn the heat down when you are away or asleep
– wash in cold water and hang dry when possible
– garden
– let us know if there is a problem of any sort

Finally, we realize that it is our foremost job to provide you with a safe, comfortable, happy place to live. Please let us know if you have any suggestions that would make your life here better, and we will do our best to follow them!
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OK, thats the short version of the big picture, but what are the little nit-picky things I need to be working on this month? I still need to trim the windows in my unit and paint walls. I also need to finish installing backerboard and tile my bathroom, and install a low flush toilet. The cork flooring to replace my worn out carpet just arrived too. I need to change out the pressure tank on the boiler now that it is warming up a bit, and get an annual check of the heating system. I have identified a place where air is leaking in around the front porch attachment that I need to seal and insulate. And my 20 year+ old convectionairre oven isn’t kicking on, so I need to see if I can get the blower motor fixed. I am also working on changing out all the T-12 fluorescent fixtures for single-bulb light fixtures. I did one in the entry-area that lowered electricity use from 120 watts (4 30-watt T-12 tubes) to 12 watts (one cfl bulb), light levels are still excellent, light quality is now much better!