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


3 responses to “Radical Efficiency: Buildings that never sleep

  1. Right on Sister. Errr, Daughter! I am spending the night at a friend in Portland (not Jenny) and they keep it 65 during the day (sweaters) and 60 at night. So, why do your pipes freeze if it’s below 60? We go down to 55 at night, but no lower because of the orchids (of all things). Wish you were going to Austria. I’ll pay attention to how they handle energy. Better than us, I’ll betcha.

  2. Yah, pipes freezing…well, mostly that was more of a problem before adding 4″ of blueboard around the house…the pipe to the outside faucet, a drain pipe, various heating pipes froze when it was -10 to -20F for 2 weeks, even though it was way above 60F in the building. Now, the only problem I’ve noted is a heat pipe near my front door. I thought it was a draft from the door getting it, but turns out there is an air leak from where the porch connects to the house. I will foam the gap when it is above freezing out! The heat pipes to the upstairs route through the weird portion of the salt box roof, and they may still be in danger when it is cold. Having the heat up does two things – the warmer indoor air battles the cold from outside, but also it sends hot water through the pipes more frequently to keep that water from freezing. Generally I only have problems when it is below zero F, and then only if I set the thermostat below 65F. I should be able to seal and insulate well enough to fix this. Many older houses have inadequate insulation, air sealing and poorly routed plumbing though, and a plumber once told me he tells people here to never let the heat fall below 65F inside. I’m sure that is erring on the side of caution for the worst case scenario, but the fact remains, you can’t just turn the heat off on any given weekend in a typical building in Anchorage.

  3. And I sorta lied in my post, this time of year, with temperatures in the teens to 20s F I could turn the heat a bit lower than 60F, it’s just that for some of November, December, February, most of January, that was not true with lots of single digits!

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