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An Interview With Martin Holladay, Part 2

“Sprout Follies”: Our Energy Nerd-In-Chief, Martin Holladay, chats with us about some misguided but well-intentioned beliefs held by some green-building newbies

Posted on Sep 1 2011 by Christopher Briley

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Those who are new to the green design and construction movement, or “sprouts,” often have some misconceptions. We've all been there, and most of us are still there to some degree or another. It's a long learning process — one that is truly endless, as Martin eloquently discusses in Part 1 of this episode.

We thought we'd talk about a few of these common beliefs as a means to structure a conversation with GreenBuildingAdvisor's senior editor, Martin Holladay.

A collection of “sprout follies”

  • Triple-pane windows are always a great idea
  • Radiant floors are the most efficient means of heat distribution
  • Always shade your windows 100% in summer
  • Spray foam is the best insulation
  • Fiberglass is the worst insulation
  • On-demand water heaters are the most efficient
  • The “Last article you read” syndrome
  • Windows: The lower the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient(SHGC) The fraction of solar gain admitted through a window, expressed as a number between 0 and 1., the better
  • PVC is the Devil!

After we recorded our podcast and attended a nice building science discussion, we managed to get in a post-event beverage at a local establishment, Sonny's, in downtown Portland, Maine. We enjoyed a Peeper Ale, and Phil also told us about his song selection, “Here Comes the Sun” by Wiseblood. ( Yes, I brought in my laptop and mic and set it on the table so you could share the atmosphere with us.) For those interested, the “bumper music” between recordings is “Know Now” by Brazillian super group Nacao Zumbi.

Also, I should warn you that the sound develops some echo in the midsection of the podcast. Sheila tells me that there's nothing to be done, and it is an anomaly on one of the recorded tracks — so, sorry about that, folks. I hope it is enjoyable all the same.

Cheers.

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Briley: We’re in Phil’s studio with Martin Holladay. Thanks for tuning back in. We were just shooting the breeze there, but we’re about to do Part 2 of our podcast: Sprout Follies. Sprouts are the newly green, those who have just jumped on the bandwagon with us. Welcome aboard!

Phil Kaplan: You were looking at me when you said that, Chris. What gives?

Chris: No, I wasn’t. I was looking at Martin!

Martin Holladay: It’s a pleasure being here with the famous Green Architects’ Lounge architects — even though they didn’t offer me a drink, just a glass of water.

Phil: That’s bad form, isn’t it? But we didn’t want to get you too tanked before the event this evening. We’ll make it up to you two-fold later on. So, Sprout Follies — essentially false assumptions made by people new to green design and construction. The answer is never as simple as it seems at first.

Folly #1: “Triple-glazed windows are always a good idea"

Phil: Triple-glazed windows are always a good idea. Martin?

Martin: Well, I would say they usually are in northern cold climates, if the customer can afford them. But down South it makes less and less sense to put your money in them. The trouble right now is that triple-glazed windows are a significant bump-up in cost. The people who look at the cost of making a triple-glazed IGU compared to a double-glazed IGU say the up-charge shouldn’t be that much. But it’s a little bit complicated by the fact that you need to have a heavier frame, and you need heavier hardware for a casement or tilt-turn or almost whatever you have — you end up with a thicker window also, so that means redesigning everything. If triple-glazed windows ever become the norm for new construction, let's say in the entire state Vermont, or Maine, or Massachusetts, the economies of scale will bring the price down. But right now they cost a lot.

Chris: The folly there is you’re spending your money on windows when you could be more effectively spending it somewhere else.

Martin: There was a bunch of entrants in a PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. competition in New Orleans recently, and most of the entrants — but not all — found you could hit Passivhaus quite easily in New Orleans with double-glazed windows. That means you save money, and the money could be spent on something else. Perhaps you have thicker insulation in the walls, or somewhere else where the money is better spent. So you have to put on your thinking cap.

I think up North, though, with a new-construction window, the up-charge is well worth it — with the possible exception of the south-facing side, where solar gain is better with double-glazed than with triple-glazed. Triple-glazed still offers better year-round performance, but if you want to save money, you could get triple-glazed windows on the north, east, and west sides, and leave the south double-glazed.

Folly #2: “In-floor radiant heat is always a good idea"

Chris: What’s next, Phil?

Phil: Radiant flooring is always a good idea.

Martin: What do you guys say? Then I’ll chime in.

Chris: It’s a classic “it depends” answer. It depends on how big your house is and what the heat demand is. If you have a 5,000-square-foot, reasonably tight house, that is big, a radiant floor is a good system. But if you have a Passivhaus, your demand is so low, that the amount of hardware and tubing you’d need for a radiant floor is more than you need. Plus, the temperature of the water going through that thing will be so low, you're not going to feel it. You could do a lot better with your money.

Phil: Exactly. You’d save your money. There are some cases where it’s a nice thing. But with some of the tight houses we’re doing now, the heat doesn’t even kick on, and it actually feels cold most of the time. You have a cold floor. It just doesn’t get the call for heat.

Martin: If you had been thinking about a wood floor but chose a concrete floor instead because you thought a concrete slab with embedded PEXCross-linked polyethylene. Specialized type of polyethylene plastic that is strengthened by chemical bonds formed in addition to the usual bonds in the polymerization process. PEX is used primarily as tubing for hot- and cold-water distribution and radiant-floor heating. tubing would be more comfortable — if you have that condition you describe, where the heat doesn’t even need to come on, then the concrete floor will feel worse than a wood floor would have. The “bare feet on a warm floor” phenomenon happens rarely in a well-insulated house.

What Alex Wilson said, which I think is a good observation, is that a lot of people who have cold floors, especially if they’re living in a slab-on-grade home, are living on an uninsulated slab. They hate that. They say, "Why is my floor so cold?" So they say in the next house they build, they’ll have a radiant-heat floor. Alex Wilson says, “What you really want is an insulated slab,” and you’ll get three-quarters of the benefit you imagine in your head by insulating the slab. You don’t really need the tubing. What you really need is insulation.

Chris: And if you have a radiant slab and you’re not insulating underneath it, that’s really inefficient. You’re shoving half the heat right into the ground.

Martin: In general, I agree completely — it's a lot of hardware. What you need to do is improve your envelope, improve your windows, and improve your airtightness, so you don’t need much heat. And if you don’t need much heat, you can deliver it almost any which way and you’ll be comfortable.

But if you have a service station or a garage and you are working on cars all day, and you are often on a creeper under a car, then a warm slab is nice. It helps melt the snow off the cars.

Folly #3: “Always shade your windows 100 percent in the summertime"

Phil: This is an interesting one… Always shade your windows 100 percent in the summertime.

Chris: But not with a Passivhaus, right, Phil?

Martin: My disclaimer is I haven’t played around with PHPP software very much. I've been to a couple of workshops where I have seen it on the screen, and I understand the concepts, but I have not been trained in PHPP. I know from my own house that I appreciate solar gain in summertime through my east windows. When that sun comes up, I want my house to be warmed up, even in July, because I live in northern Vermont. I don’t have air-conditioning. I light my woodstove sometimes, even in the middle of summer. So: climate, climate, climate. Of course, if you live in Las Vegas, you probably do want to shade your windows in summertime, on all orientations. So there’s no generalization with anything. In Maine and Vermont, summer heat gain is sometimes useful, especially on the east, but probably not on the west.

Chris: Up until recently I did the classic thing. I studied the shading on the house. In summer, with the peak solar angle in June, which really is not the hottest month of the year, I played with it to minimize solar gain. And in winter I maximized solar gain. Classic textbook passive solar design. What I learned with a Passivhaus in a cold climate is heat gain, heat gain, heat gain — don’t shade a thing. The model helps you.

Martin: How sophisticated is the model? Because I’ve seen a Passivhaus in New York state with massive glass walls on the south side and insufficient roof overhang from a passive solar perspective, and I’m thinking the model is pushing for that gain because the gain is annualized. But I’m wondering if that software is sophisticated enough to avoid overheating in March. It may be true that on an annual basis you need the heat, but we don’t live on an annual basis. I’ve designed houses that melt the butter you leave out on the kitchen countertop in March because they get so hot from solar heat gain. Do you think the PHPP accounts for that overheating?

Chris: I do not think it does. It definitely has stuff to run on the cooling side of the program, but here in our cold climate, it’s balanced toward wanting heat gain. It’s easy to cool a house up here in the summer; you barely need anything. So, that model says, “Bake that house.”

Phil: Which is a big Passivhaus controversy — that it’s not as concerned with overheating.

Martin: So, I guess we have to wait and see how these houses perform. I don’t have enough experience with the houses I'm writing about, the houses being designed right now. People have lived in some of these houses for just six months. I would like to interview them in five or ten years and ask them if they left the house closed up when they went to work on a sunny day in March, and when they got back at 5 p.m. and opened the door, were they hit with a blast of hot air, like the house overheated? Or did it run beautifully like a top?

Chris: Just today I was talking to Marc Rosenbaum about this, and he said that he’s finding you can’t do a Passivhaus in this cold climate without seasonal shading — without shading you can adjust. But no one has said that out loud in a public forum.

Folly #4: “Spray foam is always great"

Phil: OK, the question is: Is spray foam always great?

Chris. I say no.

Phil: I say no, too, but probably for different reasons. Martin, you go first.

Martin: Well, I think we’ve all begun to pay much closer attention to the global warming potential of the blowing agents used in closed-cell spray foam and in XPSExtruded polystyrene. Highly insulating, water-resistant rigid foam insulation that is widely used above and below grade, such as on exterior walls and underneath concrete floor slabs. In North America, XPS is made with ozone-depleting HCFC-142b. XPS has higher density and R-value and lower vapor permeability than EPS rigid insulation.. They have 1,400 more times global warming potential than CO2. So, very small amounts are having a huge effect on the atmosphere. This is enough of a concern that most green builders are doing everything they can to avoid using closed-cell spray foam.

Now, open-cell spray foam uses water as a blowing agent and has not been slandered as much. But we are also hearing about increasing problems with lingering odors in some houses — some of them nightmares where they have to come back and scrape every little piece of cured foam out of the house, and the people are living in a hotel for months. And we’re also hearing about shrinkage problems. Spray foam has been installed and then pulled away from the framing members, for a variety of reasons. The good installers don’t do this, and say it’s sloppy application or bad temperatures in your tanks or installer error. That said, it's a risk.

But once you have one bad spray foam job, you lose your enthusiasm. But I would say, especially with open-cell foam, it is still a great product — and even closed-cell foam is unbeatable for air sealing. And for rim joists and retrofit work where you’re going up into an attic to plug stubborn air leaks, it’s a great product with wonderful features. But that doesn’t mean you have to fill all of the insulation bays of the whole house with this stuff.

Chris: That’s how I approach it, too. I use it for the tough spots and that’s it. Is EPSExpanded polystyrene. Type of rigid foam insulation that, unlike extruded polystyrene (XPS), does not contain ozone-depleting HCFCs. EPS frequently has a high recycled content. Its vapor permeability is higher and its R-value lower than XPS insulation. EPS insulation is classified by type: Type I is lowest in density and strength and Type X is highest. — the white suff — not as bad as XPS — the blue stuff?

Martin: Right, the EPS doesn’t have the global warming potential that XPS does. But EPS sold in America has the same fire-retardant chemicals that are used in XPS. There are EPS and XPS products sold in Europe without these dangerous fire retardants. The bad flame retardants. The best rigid foam is polyisocyanurate, because it doesn’t have the bad global warming blowing agents or the bad fire retardants. However, it can’t be used below grade, so below grade we’re stuck with other problem products.

Chris: It also has the highest R-values, too.

Martin: It does have high R-values. So, if you’re putting foam on your walls or your roof or correcting a thermal bridgingHeat flow that occurs across more conductive components in an otherwise well-insulated material, resulting in disproportionately significant heat loss. For example, steel studs in an insulated wall dramatically reduce the overall energy performance of the wall, because of thermal bridging through the steel. problem, polyiso is the way to go. Good stuff.

Phil: The only thing I would add is that spray foam has flexibility problems. You have to get in there and change things over time, and you’re more locked in with spray foams.

Folly #5: “Fiberglass insulation is always bad"

Phil: What about fiberglass? Is fiberglass always bad? I feel a little icky about ever advocating fiberglass. But now we’ve started doing some homes out of state. In Maryland, the builders say, “Cellulose? What do you mean?” I tell them we don’t want to use spray foam, because of the problems we just discussed, and they say, “How about blown-in fiberglass?” The truth is you can make a pretty tight house with blown-in fiberglass.

Chris: In that scenario, you’re not depending on the insulation to create tightness — you are trying to make a very still air cavity that the fiberglass resides within.

Martin: Well, I think a lot of the bad reputation of fiberglass batts has to do with the fact that it comes in a batt. The batts don’t fit around electrical outlets or horizontal wiring or pipes — you shouldn't have pipes in walls, but some people do — and as a result they get smushed in there, and there are all kinds of air pockets, and they don’t fit.

So once you blow in fiberglass, that does a great job of solving most of the performance problems of fiberglass batts. You still have the question of embodied energyEnergy that goes into making a product; includes energy required for growth, extraction, and transportation of the raw material as well as manufacture, packaging, and transportation of the finished product. Embodied energy is often used to measure ecological cost.. But there is a lot of embodied energy in concrete, too, but people don’t knock concrete as much as they knock fiberglass. We have our favorite things to knock. I have no problem with blown-in fiberglass.

Chris: There is formaldehydeChemical found in many building products; most binders used for manufactured wood products are formaldehyde compounds. Reclassified by the United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2004 as a “known human carcinogen." in fiberglass.

Martin: Yes, there is formaldehyde in fiberglass — but there are also formaldehyde-free products as well, as far as I know. If you can have a spray-in product that goes in all the nooks and crannies, blown-in fiberglass does great. In attics it isn’t so good — it’s really low-performing. I think its R-value is 2.3 per inch for blown-in fiberglass in an attic. It doesn’t get as dense; it’s so fluffy. If there’s any air infiltration at all, or wind-washing, it performs very poorly. Some people with blown-in fiberglass in their attics have gotten so sick of it that they cap it with 3 inches of cellulose — and that goes a long way toward solving the problem. You get a dense layer on top that stops the air movement through the fiberglass.

Even then, if you have a huge attic with lots of depth, all of these problems could be solved by blowing it deeper. If you want fiberglass, and you just do the math. OK, it’s R-2.5 per inch, and if you’re willing to blow 24 or 30 inches of this stuff, it can perform fine. A lot of it’s just knowing how it performs and knowing where to use it.

Chris: One of the problems I have with it is that when you’re installing batts, you're supposed to wear a mask. Fiberglass isn’t bad for you until it’s airborne and inhaled, so what do we do but chop it up into tiny little bits and propel them through the air. It seems like the wrong way to install fiberglass.

Martin: Nevertheless, fiberglass is not asbestosMineral fiber once commonly used in many building materials, including insulation, fireproof siding, and resilient flooring. Inhalation of invisible asbestos fibers can lead to chest and abdominal cancers as well as scarring of the lungs. The use of asbestos in some products has been banned by the EPA and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission; manufacturers also have adopted voluntary limitations on its use. When found in older buildings (most commonly in floor tiles, pipe and furnace insulation, or asbestos shingles), the product's friability is a major determinant in how it must be handled during renovations. More information: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/asbestos.html. It doesn’t cause cancer, as far as we know — although there are warning labels about it. Plenty of people have installed it for years and have breathed it for years, and are not getting the same rates of medical problems you’d see if they had installed asbestos in a shipyard in Bath, Maine, for example.

Folly #6: “On-demand water heaters are always a good idea"

Chris: What’s next, Phil? What’s another green folly?

Phil: On-demand water heaters. Are they always the best way to go?

Chris: I have had clients come in and request them, and again, it all depends on your house. It depends on your plumbing and your mechanical system.

Martin: Well, I think it depends. You see them a lot in Europe and in Asia. They’re space-saving, and in a very small apartment it can make a huge difference if you can hang your water heater on a wall rather than take up floor space or a closet with a conventional water heater. Down South they put them on the outside of the house; they don’t even have a vent. It just vents to the outside, and it doesn't take up any floor space at all. They don't have any freezing problems. So in Texas your water heater just goes outside.

Those can make sense if space is an issue. You have to calculate the cost of the square footage. If your house is costing $150 per square foot, do you want another X square feet for your water heater?

I think they are mechanically trickier. They are more likely to need maintenance, and more things can go wrong with them. I like a simple, well-insulated tank-type water heater for its simplicity and its low cost. You can swap them out without any hassle. People look at the efficiency and say, “Look, I get a higher efficiency number with the on-demand heater.” That's true. But if you’re paying $2,000 for a water heater, it’s going to take a while to see the savings in energy.

Most people who have inefficient hot water systems are losing a lot of heat through piping problems. If they had a good layout — if their kitchen and bath were back-to-back, the water heater was centrally located, and the pipe runs minimized, and they had home-run plumbing lines with 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch lines, not big 3/4-inch lines running 120 feet to the master bathroom at the far end of the house — they would see lower energy bills. We need to be much more intelligent about how we design our plumbing systems. That could make a huge difference in your bill.

Folly #7: “I'm excited by the last article I read"

Phil: OK, how about the “last article you read” syndrome?

Chris: Yeah, how many times have you had someone come in who’s just heard about SIPs, read the product literature, and maybe even gone to a class — and they’re like, “Whoa, this is the only way to go. Mr. Architect, build me a SIPs house.”

Phil: “I’ve just attended a seminar by people who sell SIPs, and they tell me SIPs are the way to go.”

Chris: I think I’ve designed more SIPs houses than have been built. They usually get priced out or the builder will say, “Yeah, I can deliver the same performance for cheaper.” Of course, they want the work, rather than have it built in a shop and they’re waiting three months for it to show up. So, is the client right? Maybe it’s not even a client with “last article you read syndrome,” but a builder or another tradesperson just found out this awesome thing…

Martin: Ground-source heat pumpHome heating and cooling system that relies on the mass of the earth as the heat source and heat sink. Temperatures underground are relatively constant. Using a ground-source heat pump, heat from fluid circulated through an underground loop is transferred to and/or from the home through a heat exchanger. The energy performance of ground-source heat pumps is usually better than that of air-source heat pumps; ground-source heat pumps also perform better over a wider range of above-ground temperatures.!

Chris: Yes, exactly.

Phil: Except they call it geothermal.

Chris: So, sprouts, if you find yourself saying this is the best way to go — like, “I’m going to do an envelope house.” Or…

Phil: ICFs, even.

Chris: Yeah, exactly. “I’m going to do a whole ICF house because that’s the best.”

Phil: “Because the salesman told me it’s effectively R-50.”

Chris: Not that we’re knocking salesmen, because a good product representative is a very valuable resource.

Martin: I think the bottom line is, I think we all agree, all the products we just mentioned have their uses. They’re just not the solution for every house, and sometimes they cost more than perfectly acceptable alternatives.

Chris: So, the answer to “This is the best,” is: It depends. I probably say that annoyingly in response to so many questions. It depends on what your house is, what your energy demand is, what your climate is.

Martin: The SIPs are great if you want to get a shell up very quickly and you don’t mind a house with a lot of foam. But there are some clients who don’t want any foam in their house, and some clients who are worried about thermal bridging through the SIPs — maybe some studs go all the way through some SIPs.

Chris: Or the formaldehyde in OSB…

Martin: Right. Some people worry about OSB durability. All of these questions…. Some people say, “SIPs are perfect for me. I want my shell up in three days.” SIPs are great for them. Others will say, “Wait, I think a double-stud wallConstruction system in which two layers of studs are used to provide a thicker-than-normal wall system so that a lot of insulation can be installed; the two walls are often separated by several inches to reduce thermal bridging through the studs and to provide additional space for insulation. filled with cellulose works better for my needs.”

Chris: And be greener. Well said.

Folly #8: “The lower the solar heat-gain coefficient, the better the window"

Chris: What’s next? Let’s do the solar heat-gain coefficient.

Phil: OK. The lower the solar heat-gain coefficient, the better the window.

Martin: The federal government had a window program where they gave tax credits or incentives for windows. The 30/30 window — we all remember that one. So, that was a maximum 0.3 U-factorMeasure of the heat conducted through a given product or material—the number of British thermal units (Btus) of heat that move through a square foot of the material in one hour for every 1 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature across the material (Btu/ft2°F hr). U-factor is the inverse of R-value. and a maximum 0.3 solar heat-gain coefficient. The geniuses in Washington came up with one set of numbers for the whole country.

But of course up North we want a higher heat-gain coefficient, especially on the south side. Whereas down South you want one as low as possible, so the idea of coming up with one number for the whole country — a lot of energy-efficiency experts started hitting their heads against the wall when they heard about this tax-credit program, because the best windows did not comply. If I got the best windows up North — triple-glazed windows with a high solar heat-gain coefficient — I wouldn’t get the tax credit. So, you have to put on your thinking cap and do a little energy modeling. You have to decide what orientation you’re talking about and what your climate is. Down South, you want a low solar heat-gain coefficient. Up North, as long as you’re not facing west, you probably want a high solar heat-gain coefficient.

Phil: My corollary to that is the lowest U-factor is actually the best for windows.

Martin: In all climates.

Phil: In all climates. One of the things that has become obvious over the years is that when you get these great numbers — when you get the U-factor so low — that your visible transmittance is like 30 percent, and you can’t see through these windows.

Martin: In many cases it’s considerably lower than that.

Phil: What are you losing? It’s barely a window anymore, for what you gain.

Chris: It’s a tinted window.

Folly #9: “PVC is the devil"

Chris: OK, one more: PVC is the devil.

Let’s say you watched the movie “Blue Vinyl” or you read a couple articles, or you heard that Dow Chemical purchased a whole town because of the toxicity of producing PVC back in the 1970s, so you think that PVC is bad. PVC is all around us; it’s ubiquitous. This microphone is probably PVC. The point is, the sprout just read this article about PVC and is up on his soapbox saying that PVC is toxic to produce, difficult to recycle, and toxic to dispose of.

Phil: It is. It is the devil. I don’t think there’s any argument there. It just comes down to your budget in a lot of ways. Is your budget so low that you say, “I’m going to have a toxic house because that’s all I can afford”?

Martin: Well, “toxic house” is a strong statement. So, here is the question: If you live in a house with vinyl siding, is there toxicity that will hurt your family’s health? I would argue probably not. I think the toxicity occurred in the factory where the vinyl was manufactured — which is nothing to sniff at and is a great concern for us as a society — whether we should be manufacturing PVC. But you can’t jump to the conclusion that your children will be ill if there’s vinyl siding on your house.

Phil: I agree with that. But it’s got to start somewhere. There’s a big debate in our office right now about these German windows that have become available in the U.S. For so long we have been looking for a good, affordable triple-glazed window. They seem great — almost too good to be true. Intus windows, Schuco windows — for $30 a square foot, less than a third of some of the German windows. And the performance is great. But they’re vinyl!

Martin: Sometimes when people say they’re building a green house, they paint themselves into a corner. It’s very hard to build a vinyl-free house. I think Romex cable has vinyl sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. . You can probably come up with some old BX cable, or some different alternatives — but the people who say this are driving around in a car which is 40 percent vinyl, and they’re typing on a computer which is 30 percent vinyl, and they’re running to Wal-Mart to buy their kids’ toys.

Chris: Which are 100 percent vinyl.

Martin: Maybe they are super-greenies, and their kids only play with wooden toys made of unvarnished maple, God bless them. Maybe they don’t go on the Internet and the don't use a computer and they've never held a mouse in their hand. A plastic mouse, I mean. Maybe they've held a pet mouse, a real live mouse, a little pet mouse. If you've ever been on an airplane — you can't fly an airplane without vinyl. I think using less plastic where we do have a choice is perhaps wonderful and something to aim for. But if we’re aiming for philosophical consistency, we’re not going to have a vinyl-free life, unless we move to Nepal to a high mountain village.

Phil: We do drive this industry — builders and architects — and we have a lot of responsibility. In my mind, it's our job, if we’re going to take the leading edge on this, we have to take a hard line.

Martin: Your hard line is “no PVC.” So what do you do for wiring?

Phil: No, it’s not. We still use Romex. We’re very interested in the Living Building Challenge and where that’s leading us. Toxicity in materials is something I’m very interested in and where I’ll fight back a little bit.

Chris: I’ll fight back with you. Here in Maine we incinerate a lot of our waste stream — a lot of it. Something like 500 tons of PVC is estimated to be burned every year.

Martin: That’s a bad story. You don’t want to burn PVC.

Chris: Exactly. Those are dioxins, and if we were anywhere west of where we are, we wouldn’t get away with it, if anyone cared to measure air quality. But, it’s going out to the ocean; we’ll deal with that dioxin later. Likewise, as PVC ages, it does leach dioxin, even though only in minute amounts.

Martin: I think we should have as PVC-free of a house as we can achieve, without being some kind of dogmatist about it. That’s why I wouldn’t call it the devil. PVC is a useful material with some wonderful characteristics. It does make a window that lasts a lot longer than some rotten wood windows that I’ve bought in my lifetime.

Chris: So, really it’s not the devil, just your evil cousin who pushes you in the wrong direction. This is when I miss the cocktails.

Phil: Well, that being said — gentlemen, I think it’s time we go enjoy a couple of drinks.

Chris: I do, too. Martin, thank you so much for stopping by.

Martin: It’s been a great pleasure.

[A short recording from the bar follows.]



1.
Thu, 09/01/2011 - 08:02

Double Stud Walls (Turds)
by John Brooks

Helpful? 1

Chris and Phil,
Since Double stud walls were mentioned....
I have noticed that many/most of your projects include Double Stud Walls.
Double Stud Walls with Airtight exterior sheathing.

You seem to favor this type of construction over the BSC(Joe) strategy of the modified "perfect wall"(outboard insulation)

The advantage I see to your approach is that it is far more user friendly (buildable) and The Air Barrier is Superior to the typical BSC method.

You probably know that John Straube has called "your" wall a TURD ...he was kind enough to call it a "polished turd"....later he called it a slightly risky Orange

How about defending your "Oranges"?

My thinking ..... if your strategy "works" in your climate that it would be even less risky in the Mixed and Hot Climates.

aop.jpg


2.
Thu, 09/01/2011 - 13:46

ZIP vs Plywood
by John Brooks

Helpful? 0

Chris,
I have also been wondering if you have considered using plywood plus breathable Euro-tape instead of ZIP system ?
Or perhaps plywood with a fluid applied membrane at the joints and openings?
Or plywood with gaskets?


3.
Fri, 09/02/2011 - 01:00

PVC bonfire
by TJ Elder

Helpful? 0

As a kid I lived in a rural area, and one time there was about 100 yards of thin-wall PVC drain pipe that got replaced with schedule 40 pipe after problems with expanding clay soil crushing the pipe. The old pipe was heaped and burned, which was a method of waste disposal we used regularly. I still recall the wicked fire and heavy black smoke. This sort of anecdote now seems like a reason for the stuff to not even exist. Once it's out there you never know what will happen to it, and incineration isn't entirely unlikely.


4.
Sat, 09/03/2011 - 19:10

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:51.

Robbie House
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

We are trying to define 'green' design motivations in architecture, as something with an extremely pure motive, something with no blemish or no second agendas. If we were to write the truth about green materials, eco-thinking and sprout follies, the reality would contain a few more aspects. The analogy I might use, is that famous movie about the Watergate scandal, in which two young news reporters (not part of the existing established journalism scene at all), manage to capture their big break. That is what many young and gifted creative professionals have to do, in order to level the playing field. They are required to think outside the box.

There are two dozen different avenues that consultant architects can get carried down, and become quite insistent upon. If you look at each generation of architecture, there is always something new, something original which that generation discovers, which it uses to try to distinguish itself from all previous generations. It has an awful lot to do with the lock that existing practitioners can get on the business of architecture - because it is a business, which is strongly defined by social tie networks. That is, the amount of financial resources needed to finance the business, does not exist in an open market. Instead it travels around defined routes. You need something 'new' in order to disrupt those defined routes ever so slightly, so that it causes a little bit of chaos, and out of that chaos the up and coming generation of architects manage to win their deserved share of the market.

The particular 'new-ness' that comes about with every generation of architects, has a lot to do with new generations trying to gain some market differentiation, with the previous one.

The architects who first decided to use concrete as a material, must have seemed a lot like the pioneering green architects of today. I am sure that the architects who used concrete, must have been looking partly for that factor that would enable them to 'stand out from the crowd', and to capture some of that market share, which younger generations needs to struggle to obtain. Frank Llyod Wright for instance, was one of the first to use concrete. Wright himself wrote at some stage, that concrete had been the 'gutter rat' of building materials. I forget the exact quotation, but he was describing a building material that had no pedigree whatsoever. It had been regarded by those in the loop, as something down right dirty and nasty. Prior to his use of the material, it had been a civil engineering material mainly. It could never have been considered a material which a self respecting established architect would have included in his palette, in the way that Wright did. But then again, Wright had nothing to lose. He was a young engineer and self-trained architect without any social network. If he was to put make some impact and attract any would-be innovative thinking clients, he had to think far outside the box.

You can witness in the work of Frank Llyod Wright, in the prairie style of his earliest years, an effort to produce something which looked unlike anything that came before. He used his special knowledge about cantilevers and reinforced concrete mechanics, in combination with a sense of spatial design to offer the 'market' for residential design, something entirely new and seductive. The early work of Frank Llyod Wright and the early passive house and eco home builders of today is separated by many decades in time. But in other ways, the motivation is not dissimilar. The methodology of using scientific calculations, in order to understand the possibilities for design - that is not dissimilar. Many people assume that Frank Llyod Wright was driven by some burning creativity inside of him, to reach for new boundaries. But in fact, part of that drive was tied up in the requirement of all young architects to stretch what is possible in the envelope of residential construction - in order to create a niche, a base station - in their assault on what is a 'locked' market. Locked tightly, that is, by the previous generation of architectural practitioners, of whatever colour they may be.

My thesis is therefore, that if Wright and other young architects in previous generations, had had a ready supply of commission work from a pre-existing market (say they inherited a pool of clients through some means), their incentive may not be as strong, to go to the greater lengths as we see in the early Wright house, or the early north American passive structures. In many ways we can think of the Robbie House by Wright, as an example of a 'sprout folly'.


5.
Sat, 09/03/2011 - 19:48

On other stuff
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

I found this very nice virtual book from the guys working in Next Design and design theory. It is filled with nice little diagrams etc. One of the points raised in the above interview by Chris I think, was the important role played by the responsible and intelligent product representative, as part of the team. Chris, you may enjoy a flick through this design theory book some time.

http://issuu.com/humantific/docs/humantificthinkingmadevisible


6.
Sat, 09/03/2011 - 20:46

Brian, flat roofs,
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Helpful? -1

Brian, flat roofs, cantilevers, residential use of concrete, all of what Wright did turned out to indeed be what it was before he brought it to us, gutter rat crap.

Open floor plans are his one interesting legacy, and that's it.


7.
Sat, 09/03/2011 - 22:34

To Mr. Brooks, In defense of double stud walls
by Christopher Briley

Helpful? 0

I do recall Mr. Straube's "apples to turds" comment on one of Martin's blogs. (Which betrayed his feelings toward the double stud walls verses a robust 'Outsulation' application.) So I offer my defense of the double stud wall as follows. They are cheaper, greener, and have a higher performance. John's problem is precisely when someone generalizes like I just did. So I'll break it down.
Cheaper: a double stud wall is a pretty easy concept for most builders and it uses a much cheaper insulation material (cellulose).
Greener: Instead of using a petroleum product, with high embodied energy, an undetermined end life, (and sometimes with a questionable fire retardant) for insulation, one uses recycled newsprint (treated with a borate solution).
Higher performance: HERE is where John makes his point. Higher R-value? yes. Lower air infiltration rates? probably not, but maybe depending on the installation and the detailing. Greater durability? probably not, but maybe even better, again depending on installation and detailing.
The point is that the double stud wall is much more of a system that is dependent on really good execution. The double stud walls I'm working on are being done with top notch New England builders who understand this stuff and where we are getting passivhaus-type ACH50 numbers. The outsulation method is much more forgiving of errors and therefore (probably in Mr. Staube's view) a much more recommended system to the public at large. A failure in the outsulation system will be discovered relatively quickly and the remedy will likely be easy. A failure in the double stud wall system could go undetected for a long time and when detected, could be a much larger and more expensive project.
I stand by the double stud wall, and feel like it’s a good system that time will prove. Straube is one of our heroes and a “turd” comment gives us pause, where we examine what we’re doing and sharpen our pencils, make our own judgements, and keep our eyes on the ball.

Chris Briley, Architect


8.
Sat, 09/03/2011 - 22:55

To Mr. Brooks - Zip vs. Plywood
by Christopher Briley

Helpful? 0

The perm rating of Zip system as compared to plywood w/ WRB is virtually the same. I understand those who are "anti-zip" because of a concern of tape joints eventually failing and in a way that channels water into the seams, but I'm just not there. A well detailed wall (with a rainscreen) will see very little in the way of active water (water in substantial amounts flowing down it's surface) It will see it's fair share of moisture and condensation, sure, but this tape is tough stuff, and seals like a dream. There's nothing wrong with plywood with european-style sealant tape with a WRB over it. It's just fine. A little more expensive, but fine.

Chris Briley, Architect


9.
Sat, 09/03/2011 - 23:09

To Brian - Humantific
by Christopher Briley

Helpful? 0

Very cool online book. Definitely gets my wheels turning. Thanks!

By the way, I think that if FLW were alive and well today he would be a classic sprout. He would be very late to embrace the green movement, and when he finally would he would act like he was the first to think of the things he thought of. (And of course it would look great and everybody would trip over themselves to either exalt it or bash it.

Cheers.

Chris Briley, Architect


10.
Sun, 09/04/2011 - 17:40

Edited Sun, 09/04/2011 - 18:09.

East to West, West to East
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

Chris,

That is a very interesting characterisation of Frank Llyod Wright as an architect. I have enjoyed a huge advantage in recent years, in that I took a step right back from the designed aspects of construction (my undergraduate dissertation for construction economics at the moment, is on design-build types of contracts being introduced now in Europe), and became involved more in procurement and development aspects of the industry. When I look at an architect, any architect nowadays, I tend to look from the point of view of someone who wishes to buy the services of the architectural profession, rather than someone who wants to participate in it, and try to make a decent living. I have found that this changed perspective, has allowed me to re-visit some of the old masters that I enjoyed in the early days of my architecture school experience, and re-visit my impression of them, with a different set of eyes. Whenever I get the chance nowadays, I do amuse myself often, in provoking for a response from those who are still active practitioners of the architectural trade.

When I read your comment above in relation to Wright, and that from 'AJ Builder' above also, it gives me something to chew on. I hadn't ever considered Wright from angle that you describe. Nor, have I had too much experience in my life, of receiving an opinion about Frank Llyod Wright, the architect, from someone who is native to the north American continent. It is different you see, in meeting someone who is a native of north America, where Wright has become embedded into the cultural tradition and popular conception of the 'architect'. It is different here in Europe. Most of us have encountered Wright mainly from photographs, amazing drawings and stories of legend. It is the same with south American architects such as Barragan, or later day American architects who were influenced in some way directly by Wright. I am thinking of the Wright to Louis Kahn connection in particular. Especially, the influence that Wright's drawing style had on that of Kahn.

What you mention about Wright reminds me of something else I learned in recent weeks. It is about the new environment of social networking. The idea that social media companies rely on the existence of super connector type of people, in order to create value. If you think of it, it makes a lot of sense. Because certain types of people are gifted in the number of connections that they create. They are like super hubs. In your description of Frank Llyod Wright, I am reminded of that a lot. It is like architects such as Wright perform the function of super hubs, within the dispersed community of designers. They act the same as a lightning rod. They become conductors for much of the debate and controversy that may occur at any stage within the community. As you mention, Wright would probably show up late to the party, but at the same time, manage to become the conduction rod for the important debate that would occur at the same party. Malcolm Gladwell has a chapter in his book, The Tipping Point, about this sort of individual and why they are important to how communities function.

Now there is an observation about Frank Llyod Wright the architect, which no European could ever come up with. It requires someone who is immersed in the culture, to be able to see those angles. The thing about Europe and north America is that the vast majority of influence travels from west towards the east. Take for instance, the dissertation project of mine, on Design-Build. That is a completely new arrival to these shores, along with other items such as Value Engineering. Here in Europe we are used to the process of receiving these great new ideas from the new world, and figuring out how to apply them here in a local context. Last Christmas I spent some time ready Larry Miles original text about Value Engineering, written after his experience during the second world war. The book was first published some time in the 1950s I think. But sometimes, I find it is worthwhile to find these original texts - and I am glad I did - because I realized immediately the amount of distortion which occurs in the transmission across the big pond. It is the same with Design Build. There are many here in Europe who think of it as a new contract. There are some more who think about it, as a new procurement method. But I find that reading some texts, which are penned by members of the American DB Institute in particular - that DB, is neither a set of contracts, or a procurement system. Rather, it extends out to become an entire project delivery system. That is one of the key things I have learned in my initial investigation.

When in rare instances, something travels from East to West across the big pond, such as Passive House design or John Maynard Keynes and his ideas on economics, I imagine it must be the same for those in north America. It is challenging at times, to capture the transmission in its totality. There is so much activity and debate within your own very large continent, that the ideas can mutate and spread out in all sorts of new directions. This is not a bad thing, by any manner or means. There is a book about Value Engineering by a couple of British authors, Kelly and Male, where they made visits and studies to projects in the US. They authored their book and called it Value Management instead of Engineering. They imagined that their conception of it, was far superior to that employed in north America. There you go. So between Larry Miles first publishing the idea in the 1950s, to the modern interpretation of VE today, to the European translation of that interpretation, it is hard sometimes to understand the various strains of the viral concept.

Same with Lean production ideas. Japanese texts translated for the American market by Norman Bodek and his publishing company, and then it makes it back to Europe here by a long route. That is very like Frank Llyod Wright of course, who had so much influence from the Japanese side, brought it to north America, and eventually aspects of it, end up becoming embedded in the European architectural practitioners such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Rietveld etc. One of the things I noticed about G.K. VanPatter and Humantific's work, is they traced a lot of the lineage of design thinking traditions on the continent of America. VanPatter found that a lot of the 'good stuff' wasn't present within certain traditional design traditions at all. The good stuff was found in some parallel line. I guess, in a lot of this stuff, necessity is the mother of invention is the reason for it. An awful lot depends on chance meetings of different traditions.


11.
Sun, 09/04/2011 - 17:59

Edited Sun, 09/04/2011 - 18:13.

Roy Bahat, Rumours of the web's demise
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

I wanted to address this idea of social networking and of modern electronic media a little bit if I may. It's far off the trail, but I wished to share it. I listened to this Roy Bahat podcast a few times in the last month. What Bahat is trying to do in his analysis is tie together the idea of electronically generated spaces, with ideas about urban space and design.

http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/newsandevents/events/20101027bahat

He manages to fold together quite a lot of different ideas, which are fairly interesting. I particularly liked, what he said about the World's of Warcraft game environment. It got a little crowded out, and they made instances of the original 'world' and called them different dimensions or something. From an electronic standpoint, it cost them very little. But afterwards, they sold the idea of a charge so that people could move from one dimension to another, for $25 at a time. It turned out to be a great success, as people liked to be in the same dimension as friends of their's. Anyhow, this relates back in some way to my point about Frank Llyod Wright, and how he managed to combine together so many different communities. It is a far out reference for sure, but it's an interesting podcast from an architectural point of view. From what you mention, Frank Llyod Wright was a lot like Pablo Picasso, who could pick up so many different artistic styles, and earn a living from them - always making himself the centre of the controversy.

Martin Holladay would learn from the podcast also. It contains quite a few useful ideas, from the point of view of web design ideas etc, going into the future.


12.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 01:57

Double-stud walls
by Ted Clifton

Helpful? 0

I can't let the various comments about double-stud walls go un-punished...

In a heating climate, the vapor-drive is from the inside to the outside. Depending on the typical temperatures and humidity levels of the region, it is likely that double-stud walls will have condensation occur at some point in the middle of the insulation layer. As long as the vapor profile of the wall allows that moisture to re-vaporize on a daily basis, and exit through the exterior sheeting, there would not be a problem. However, in reality, there are usually far more penetrations on the interior side of the wall, therefore far more potential air leaks, and there probably will be a build-up of condensation inside the double-stud cavity. The colder the climate, the more likely this scenario.

Not so much with a single stud cavity, with the right amount of foam sheeting on the outside. If the vapor profile and climate considerations are taken into proper account, the dew-point will always be in the middle of the foam sheeting layer. This will keep any moisture that does enter the wall cavity suspended as vapor, and it will not condense inside the wall. Whenever the relative humidity becomes greater inside the wall than it is in the room, the vapor will simply re-enter the room, without condensing in the wall.

Why not just build a SIPS wall to begin with, and give up the worry? I would submit that when SIPS become common-place, they will be built at a far lower cost than typical stud-walls. There is far less raw materials used, and almost all the materials in SIPS are derived from what used to be waste materials from the lumber and gasoline industries.


13.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 05:15

In defense of double stud walls
by albert rooks

Helpful? 0

Ted,

I agree with your moisture picture in our Pacific Northwest Climate (Your on Whidbey Isl, right??). I'd like to point out that the trend is that the assembly is getting better air & vapor sealing at the inner layer. This will reduce the interior vapor drive. SIPS have their own potential issues as well, so I think that the DD stud wall with a less than 1 perm exterior sheeting has similar potential issues and one is not currently "safer" than the other.

The moisture problem goes away if the exterior sheeting is changed up from Plywood or Zip to a permeable material like the Euro fibre boards. I think they look far better in the application. With a 15+ Perm exterior sheeting and dense pack cellulose, the system becomes self regulating. If these panel producers like Huber want to sell a good valued added product, I just don't get why one of them doesn't come out with a similar product to the euro exterior grade, highly permeable 5/8" sheeting. It's such a missed market opportunity.


14.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 05:30

Suggestion for a future podcast
by albert rooks

Helpful? 0

Chris,

Rather than harp on exterior sheeting, or comment on the nature of apples, oranges & TURD Walls...

I'd like to suggest that you consider inviting one of the excellent brews from Fish Brewery in Olympia Washington as your "guest beverage" for a future podcast. The hoppy creations from Fish will provide an atmosphere where interesting yet lucid Architectural discourse will flow as easily as the beer.

i would be happy to ship a representative supply. enough to get through the podcast, and the after party.

You have an after party... Right???

Cheers!


15.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 07:11

Edited Mon, 09/05/2011 - 07:12.

Query
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

If someone had a link to an article here at GBA, which shows a simple diagram or sketch of what a 'double stud wall' is, then that would be of great assistance to European readers here, who are not immersed in a living tradition of stick constructed timber residential buildings.


16.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 07:59

Edited Mon, 09/05/2011 - 08:00.

Double Stud Illustration
by John Brooks

Helpful? 0

Hello BO'H,
Not many illustrations of Double Stud at GBA
check out Image #2 & #3 at this blog
http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/superinsulated-ho...
there are many variations
The blog above is where the "turd" comment originated..
and more discussion follows at this GBA Q&A
http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/community/forum/energy-efficiency-an...


17.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 15:23

Edited Mon, 09/05/2011 - 15:29.

Much Appreciated
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

John,

As I mentioned above, my concentrations have been elsewhere than detailed construction techniques for the past year or so. The discussion that you linked to is very helpful, and I can see from the images, exactly what the double stud wall is now. It is not so long ago, that I would have very much enjoyed reading through a complete 100+ comment thread, on double stud walling techniques. Alas, at the moment, the Green Architect's Lounge podcast is as far as my attention budget can stretch, given all of the other things completing for my attention.

By reading your response, you have also reminded me of the fact, that I haven't listened to a 'Building Science' podcast in quite a while now either. This is strange for me, as I used to keep well up to date on that sort of thing, and also the 'Energy Advisor' and many of the other podcast sections.

The other thing I am reminded about also, is I need to have a look at the latest Green Building Advisor featured videos here. I was really, really impressed with some of those videos when I viewed some last year. We have a totally different construction methodology on this side of the Atlantic, but that does not mean, that we can't learn a lot over here, from your attention to detail and so on. Green Buliding Advisor website is fabulous for someone such as myself actually, who tends to have their head stuck in contracts and spreadsheets, and project schedules for long periods of time. You wouldn't believe it, given the amount of 'hands on' detailing experience I have under my belt, but I tend to forget about the nuts and bolts of construction. When dealing with the numerical and management aspects of construction, you are dealing with it, very much in the abstract.

I must sign up to the membership here at some stage, and really get down to observing some of the detailed drawing collection here at GBA. When I get the dissertation out of the way hopefully.

Another thing I would mention, is that many times in architecture, you can get caught up in a continuous cycle of doing feasibility sketch planning, master planning, modelling and visualisation of various sorts. In that context, as much as the numerical one I refer to above, you tend to see things very much in the abstract. What is very, very clear from Green Building Advisor (and it is something I do like enormously), is the imprint given to it by Martin Holladay. The carpenter's, practical, hands-on view of things. I am sure I speak for many other frequent GBA visitors also in that. Especially many architects who are attempting in their work, to combine together the abstract overview with the implementation reality.

I think that Martin and Chris in the first podcast of this series, may have discussed the question - how many architects do visit the Green Building Advisor website. Well, from my perspective, I believe that many more architects would enjoy and benefit from the odd visit here, for all of the reasons I describe above. I do believe there is potential for a larger architecturally trained audience to come here to GBA in time. But also, it might make sense in time to explore the alternative of GBA going to the architects, rather than the other way around. I mean, architects tend to consume much of their additional job training in short, intense seminars etc. I see no reason, why GBA in time should not develop its own series of training seminars, aimed at the architects market. Maybe not as geared towards the scientific as what Dr. Straube or Dr. Lstiburek cater to. But perhaps giving a different slant, with a lot of the visual elements, hands on construction examples, case studies and what have you.

Keep at it, in any case guys. The level of discourse and examination in evidence at GBA, is all quite impressive to me.


18.
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 15:37

Edited Mon, 09/05/2011 - 15:42.

Comment for Martin
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

A thought struck me Martin, on the idea of the Green Building Advisor moving to the architecture community - as opposed to the other way around. It relates to some conversations I had lately, with a former editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue Review. A man called Howard Rheingold.

Howard is working in a whole new business nowadays of doing webinars with students online, in relation to the subject he teaches at Stanford university. It is all to do with theory of cooperation, online communities and commons spaces of various sorts. Some kind of short, intensive sequence of sessions perhaps, that would be suited to a trained architect, who is working to develop their awareness of things practical and energy efficient in construction. I don't know how this would translate, or how it could be presented.

I mention it because of your past interest in the WE publications, and Howard has recently embarked on this new medium for his work. He is a west coast resident of course, and naturally that doesn't make communication as easy. You may have some good ideas to share with one another.


19.
Tue, 09/06/2011 - 04:13

Response to Brian O' Hanlon
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Brian,
GBA has done webinars in the past, and we hope to do more in the future. So we're both thinking along the same lines. Thanks.


20.
Tue, 09/06/2011 - 17:05

Re: Frank Lloyd Wright
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

I have to disagree with some of the the characterizations of FLW above. Far from being late to the party, Wright would have been at its head - opinionated, irritating and sometimes bone-headed and self-contradictory but undoubtedly leading the pack. He pioneered passive solar design and an intimate, rooted, humane vision of the home while his contemporaries were building abstract, austere 'machines for living'. The radical concept of an organic architecture which he developed and promoted throughout much of his long career prefigured the green movement and inspired several generations of architects and builders to build in harmony with the earth instead of at odds with it. Truth to materials, to be of the landscape not thrust upon it were his watchwords and if in our obsession with airtightness and R-values we ignore these lessons it is to our great loss.

The preoccupations of his age were different from those of our own: consider the recent Q & A post of Maria Hars (9/1/2011) for whom the issues of super-insulation and high efficiency mechanicals which so occupy the discussions here are mostly irrelevant. The homes of Wright's age were expected to be cold in winter and warm in summer, hence the cosy fireplace nooks and the airy sleeping porches. That we now expect year-round indoor comfort conditions within narrow temperature and humidity ranges is no reason to ignore the meta-lessons contained in Wright's amazing lifetime body of work.


21.
Tue, 09/06/2011 - 20:44

Edited Tue, 09/06/2011 - 20:49.

FLW lived life large but his
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Helpful? -1

FLW lived life large but his work was all way too costly and structurally faulty. The opposite of sustainable green multi century building. The buildings are sagging, leaking, dripping, chipping, flaking, scaling messes slash money pits. Eye candy, is what they were, eye sores now unless you add $10-20 million in renovations every couple of decades.

http://www.hughpearman.com/articles5/flw.html

"Just as it was normal for a Wright building to cost much more than expected when it was new - three times the original estimate he snared you with was routine - so the guardians of Wright's buildings today face quite startling bills to keep them standing. Between $3m and $8m to restore one of his iconic houses. $10m to renovate one of his youngest university buildings. Another $10m to set right a modest 1909 hotel in Iowa - a sum so steep the local council is trying to sell it on eBay. $24.5m to salvage the Guggenheim's flaky exterior. At least $86m, some say, to rescue the twin headquarters of the Wright cult, his studio-communes of Taliesin, in rural Wisconsin, and Taliesin West, in the Arizona desert."


22.
Tue, 09/06/2011 - 22:35

"He was just so blindingly good."
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

@ AJ - from the article you reference:
""Right now, I would say his reputation remains justifiably high," says Riley. "Many architects say they are risk takers or experimenters, but few are as audacious as was Wright. That said, anyone who is truly pushing the limits runs the risk of failure, partial or total. A number of Wright's buildings do have problems, but none of them are total failures. And the great majority have no more problems than any building would have after 50 if not a hundred years of use."

For Riley, Wright was a true innovator, and for that, people are prepared to pay the price to keep his buildings going. .... And the work of today's architects, in a much more tightly-regulated world, goes wrong often enough too. But none of them has anything like the charisma of Wright. Any smart idea they come up with, the chances are that Wright had that same idea generations back. Why did people tolerate this preening old wizard in his lifetime? Why do they scramble to save his buildings today, even as they wring their hands in despair? That's an easy one to answer. He was just so blindingly good. He was an original. "


23.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 06:10

Response to James Morgan
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

James,
"He was just so blindingly good."

And anti-Semitic: "Wright was the Mel Gibson of his era, but his anti-Semitism had to be kept under control since a majority of his clients were Jewish. Not only did Wright publicly endorse Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford’s political charges blaming the Jews for America’s entry into WWII, but when provoked, Wright would resort to anti-Semitic screeds." (http://www.independent.com/news/2006/sep/06/sex-lies-and-frank-lloyd-wrigh/)

His Taliesin communities fed his desire to be surrounded by followers who followed the "cult of genius" he encouraged. But none of that really matters compared to the basic fact that he couldn't keep water out of his buildings.

I think like a roofer. If you can't keep your buildings dry, Frank, you're no genius.


24.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 08:38

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:37.

Thanks for the Hugh Pearman article link
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

I'm obviously responsible for turning the Martin Holladay Interview Part 2 comment thread, into one about Frank Llyod Wright. But heck, maybe it is time that the Green Architects Lounge opened that particular closet, and allowed all of these many skeletons associated with FLW to fall out on the floor and create a huge mess.

I will leave you with one important observation in all of this. A well known British architect, David Chipperfield delivered a lecture in Dublin city a few years ago. He showed us slides of his work from all around the world. He was renovating some old historic building in Berlin. He had a project for an art gallery in Anchorage, Alaska. He had various projects in Europe. All of them were exquisite to look at in the slides. However, he paused for about one minute in the minute of an hour long lecture, and showed us his only project in north America. It was an office building, which looked just like any other office building, surrounded by a sea of tarmac, full of cars parked in rows.

We all thought to ourselves, well, why did he even bother showing us that slide?

It just looked so out of context, when compared with the exquisite attention to detail and design of all of his other projects. The main reason he inserted the slide in, was because he said, he had worked all over the world and he decided to attempt to do a project in north America. He found that he could not work, the way he worked in general. He described the way in which the architect is only a small, insignificant member of the construction team in north America. That the contractor had the most influence with the client. Hence, the end result. A glass office building, surrounded by a sea of automobiles, which didn't look like a David Chipperfield project at all. It looked just like at other.

This is what makes Frank Llyod Wright 'an Outlier' I guess, in the north America context. Wright was such a big personality, that he could be larger than the contractor on projects. I mean, Frank Llyod Wright could get away with many things that architects shouldn't get away with. But how many others could? If you saw, what a David Chipperfield design was reduced down to, in the instance I referred to above, you would understand my point. Architects such as Frank Llyod Wright are the exception to the rule in north America.

It is the same by the way, in consultant engineering. I know of a couple of instances, where very famous British international consultant engineers were operating in north America, and found themselves very much curtailed in what they could do. I know of one instance, where an engineering firm imagined it could re-write some of the codes to do with seismic theory for a very wealthy state in north America. They didn't get very far. The north Americans are already far too clever, and too savvy, than to allow themselves to be pushed around by HIPPO's. Highly paid professional peoples' opinions.

It is funny though. If you ask the British consultants to give their side of the story, they claim they weren't interested in the north American market to begin with. They had their eye instead on larger prizes such as the building boom in China. In fact, many of those designers and engineering firms who found it challenged to throw their weight around in the USA, found they could re-write the seismic theory books, where the Chinese codes were concerned. Of course, the American codes in many areas of construction, have been developed and improved over many generations nows. There is no need at all, for a global consultancy firm to come in and start re-doing everything from scratch.

Unfortunately, that is what happened in Ireland in public procurement, when our department of finance here, had a way too much taxes in its coffers and went absolutely crazy in paying international lawyer firms to write up a totally new set of construction contracts. The likes of which, are just too expensive to maintain and execute in more normal, non-boom, times.

We need to bear in mind these cultural differences, between Europe and north America, when we think about many issues. I have commented a few times now in the 'Part 4' sequel of the PHIUS news blog entries at GBA. I tried to make the point about developing new project delivery systems. From my reference to a specific book, Preparing for Design-Build Projects: A Primer for Owners, Engineers, and Contractors, by James E. Koch, Keith R. Molenaar Douglas D. Gransberg. I made the argument (which the authors of the said title make), that Design-Build is an entire project delivery system. Though many people who have encountered Design-Build, in their work, can view it as a mere form of contract, or as a procurement system.

What we have real presentation of, in this podcast on 'Sprout Follies', on the Green Architects Lounge, is a notion about Green Building as a procurement system. That is, we start from a label, a standard of some sort like LEED, Greenstar, Net Zero, Passive or whatever. That is like the 'contract' so to speak. The designers agree to delivery something based on that standard. Next, we see that the designers begin to talk about procurement. We hear Jesse Thompson in one of the Green Architects Lounge podcasts describe his frustration in dealing with lumber yards for instance. Or we listen to Martin Holladay and Phil Kaplan talk about the materials, synthetic or otherwise, which are used to make window frames. That is, we are moving from the contract, up to the procurement system in the hierarchy.

The next step, and I believe it is the one which PHIUS is faltering on at the moment, is how do you envision the 'standard' and the procurement system, as a much broader and more complex delivery system. You get into organisational change management - both on the design or contractor end - and the organisation of the owner, client, employer also. That is, to allow a world famous British designer to work within the American context, certain things may need to alter or adjust, to facilitate a new approach. There is the obvious question. Is there enough 'value' to be gained back, to make the effort of going through the change process worthwhile?

In the instance, where north America already has a very well developed existing standard. A standard which is very robust and has stood over time - why would one want to change it? But in other cases, such as the David Chipperfield office building example I mentioned above, maybe a couple of degrees of freedom could be found in the construction process. To make it possible for the new and the original to occur.

What do others here think?

-


25.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:07

A new low in architect-contractor relations
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Brian,
I have no idea if you are accurately representing the anecdote about David Chipperfield's view of U.S. contractors and architects, but if you are, David Chipperfield's comments are both unhelpful and inaccurate.

I just don't know where to start. He showed a slide of "an office building, which looked just like any other office building, surrounded by a sea of tarmac, full of cars parked in rows" -- and he blamed this ugly scene on a contractor? Presumably, because contractors in the U.S. have a disproportionate influence on construction, compared to elsewhere in the world, where architects rule?

Give me a break. Let's all work to heal these false divisions between architects and builders. Let's work together. And let's stop blaming builders for stuff that they aren't responsible for. I don't know why the office building was surrounded by an ugly parking lot, but I can imagine several factors other than the contractor's decision: zoning laws, the owner's insistence, the lack of urban planning... I'm just getting started...


26.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:16

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:36.

Deliberately Provocative
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

Martin,

I am very glad to hear your comment above. When I was sitting in the audience attending the lecture by David Chipperfield in Dublin a few years back - my reaction was almost exactly the same as yours. I thought to myself - like, give me a break. My purpose in giving the above anecdote was to offer an example of the 'conversation' that often occurs when architects here in the British Isles get together. Of course it is simplistic. Of course it is ridiculous. Of course, it makes absolutely no real sense. But the fact is, many of the attitudes I describe, like in the Chipperfield example are out there. At the end of the day, because those attitudes are out there, it doesn't matter whether they are rational or not. What it simply means, is that we have 'STAR-itects' going around the world, who believe they need to create this colossal image of themselves, in order to navigate through the resistance they perceive to be out there, and preventing them from achieving their design ambitions.

There is a great expression from the TV series, 'The West Wing'. Jed Barlett is coming to the end of his term of office. An elderly senator from the state of Florida objects to Leo McGarry, the chief of staff's visit to meet Castro in Cuba. He remarked about Barlett and McGarry, the two old men, going legacy shopping in Cuba. One could argue the same about STAR-itects. Some of them get so famous, to the point where all they are doing, is legacy shopping around the globe. Other younger design professionals with ambitions see that, and think that is what they need to aim for.

I agree with you. We need to find better ways to work together. But, there is a problem. Young professional designers use famous ones as their role models. If they listen to comments such as the one about the north American construction industry from a famous designer, they tend to take those comments to heart. The question is, how does one improve the level of the conversation? How does one get designers and contractors, planners and legislators to all sit down together, and behave and think more rationally? I don't even pretend to have the silver bullet answer to that.


27.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 11:02

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 11:02.

Anti-semitism in the 1920's
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

Please, enough with the ad hominems. People have loved taking pot-shots at Wright since he ceased to be the darling of the Chicago bourgeoisie when he eloped to Europe with Mamah Borthwick in 1909. Wright had both Jewish clients and Jewish apprentices and was no more anti-semitic than many if not most of the public figures of his day: http://tinyurl.com/3mrnnds

Regarding roof leaks, yes, he pushed the boundaries of constructional achievement, as have many great architects of the past including the designers of many of the great cathedrals of Europe which collapsed with almost monotonous regularity throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The roof failures were relatively rare, mostly on his more daring public buildings like the Johnson Wax building, and conspicuous only because of Wright's fame and prominence. If we may return the discussion to Wright's most enduring legacy and connection with today's green building movement: starting with the his Usonian homes in the 1940's Wright pioneered many of today's green strategies: sun-sensitive orientation, not so big homes, slab heating, honest minimally-processed materials of low environmental impact, no-VOC finishes. And many of these homes are in better condition today than most of their contemporaries.


28.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 11:59

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 13:53.

Response to James
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

James,
According to Franklin Toker, author of Fallingwater Rising, "Wright lashed out at his 'k*ke attorney' and the 'k*ke lawyer' who had opposed him. A typically perjorative use of the word 'Jewish' in
Wright's lexicon appears in his December 3, 1932, letter to his lecture agent W. Colston Leigh, whom he accused of cheating: 'My dear Leigh: your logic concerning the Madison deduction is too Jewish for me, or anyone here, to grasp.'"

There are more quotes in the same vein from Frank Lloyd Wright in Toker's book, for any GBA readers with a strong stomach and greater curiosity. While such anti-Semitism may have been commonly expressed by the likes of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh in the 1920s, they were far from universal in the U.S. at that time.

Frank Lloyd Wright's inability to keep his buildings dry was not limited to his difficulty with roof details; it also extended to problems keeping bulk water off of walls and his failure to consider the results of condensation. Both of these latter problems caused extensive deterioration of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.


29.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 12:21

o
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Helpful? -1

James and all, I built a FLW style home for an owner/architect. Same deal. Very nice design. Giant section floating out over a steep slope side. Flat roofs with roof scuppers. I couldn't believe however the lack of structural care! Our nickname for the arch was "Sagging Headers AIA." Overspans was his norm. We finally got his attention by snapping chalk lines on some of the headers.

Frank's work like you say James was and is artistic, most all agree. But, the number one function of a building is to stand up against the elements, the test of time, and for "most" of us to do so at a reasonable cost.

FLW's work misses the mark on all three points that truly matter. Eye candy that's it for me. Show me one just one of his famous structures that had no cost overruns, has needed no major renovation, and was built for a reasonable sum of money. There is no such building.

Please all learn one thing from this back and forth whether you are any part of a construction project. 2x12s do not span 20' spaced 16" on center! Unless you are building an indoor trampoline.

It is possible to build structrally sound artistically designed long lasting structures and stay on budget. I have seen it done collaboratively and Frank never came close.

My last thoughts on Frank hopefully...


30.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 14:29

Oy vay.
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

Martin:
"While such anti-Semitism may have been commonly expressed by the likes of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh in the 1920s, they were far from universal in the U.S. at that time."
Actually such comments were very common then, an ordinary part of the mainstream culture that would have aroused very little attention. About the equivalent of 'that's so gay' in a twenty-first century schoolyard, or anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant comments in contemporary politics. Crass, ignorant, insensitive, yes. But not at all unusual for the time.

AJ:
So let me get this straight. You built a 'FLW style' home a while back, designed by another architect entirely, and you use this as the reference point for your critique? Way to make a cogent argument.

BTW I have remodeled a number of homes dating from the first half of the last century originally built with 2 x 8 floor joists at 20" on center spanning 16'. Their design was never sullied by anyone with an architectural training. Should I take these as evidence of the superior structural awareness of building contractors?


31.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 16:40

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 16:44.

Yes James I do. Frank and my
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Helpful? -1

Yes James I do. Frank and my arch could draw fantastic open interiors. Nice. They didn't (like you) focus on the fact that structure is everything. James, design any eye candy structure you want to. Then somewhere along the process, check back to reality. The building has to stand up and hold out the water and not have sagging anything, trampoline floors, rotting flaking concrete, scuppers that clog daily from the trees surrounding the beautiful flat roofed wonder.

Somehow you think this is a contractor verses arch thing. NO! NOT!

It is a function verses non functional eye candy thing.

We have a recently built great space up my way for use as a community center and art access space. Great design, looks nice and above all it functions! And to top it off one of the major design aspects was to design it for long lasting use with the need for the least upkeep possible.

To me that is a great building.

Buildings that run 3 times the original cost, then cost twice that to renovate, well you are losing me fast at that point.

Not sure why we are posting back and forth James. We agree Frank came up with innovative designs. And if you look a bit more and a bit less defensively, you should agree that nothing Frank designed functioned well for a reasonable cost.


32.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 17:23

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 17:42.

Post Occupancy Analysis
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

Guys,

At the present, I am in the middle of a very step learning curve. I have to study all kinds of subjects, such as Design Cost Appraisal, various project management and construction management support subjects and complete a dissertation hopefully within the next too years. But I can confirm that in Europe at least, in the modern curriculum for construction economics third level courses - a lot of the things we are discussing here - are coming up on the radar. Now, I am not suggesting for one moment, that these things are covered well, or covered thoroughly in a higher level course such as the European type of construction economics course. But suffice it to say, that they are there. I mean, subject areas such as Lean Construction, Whole Life Cycle Cost Management, Facilities Management, and even Post Occupancy Analysis.

I will be the first to admit, many of the items such as LCC and POA are 'tacked on' at the end of the curriculum. Normally, it is coming up to examination time, by the time, the professor gets around to it. But they are there. My point is that, there are well developed disciplines in these things, methodologies and bodies of knowledge that we can reference to. When I read what James and AJ have discussed above, in relation to Frank Llyod Wright, it is obvious that we don't have to pick on FLW in particular. We could pick on any number of projects or facilities that have been 'delivered' by various contractual methods and project delivery systems. Some methods of project delivery dovetail together quite nicely with the project in question. Sometimes, things do not dovetail together well at all.

To AJ, in particular I would recommend the following reference. I have conversed a number of times with the men behind the British 'Usable Buildings Trust'. I know a couple of people in Ireland, who have been part of the 'sustainable' building movement for much longer than the last decade. Indeed, this notion of usable buildings was very much a part of the earliest sustainable building movement. Stewart Brand was actually one of the early references, and his TV series done for the BBC broadcasting company in the UK, of the name 'How Buildings Learn'. I have watched it a couple of times online I remember.

http://www.usablebuildings.co.uk/

Anyhow, there is the website I recommend. I think you need an official membership to access all of the articles, which is available if you contact the website owners. I obtained an access pass at no charge a couple of years ago I remember, and had a look at their stock of articles. What I wish to draw your attention to, is the technique which they used to ascertain the 'usefulness' of the buildings under many headings, after the owner had moved into the building, and got to using it proper. It is based on the discipline I refer to, of this 'Post Occupancy Analysis'.

I must also mention, that some of the very early sustainable architects here in Ireland and the United Kingdom do obtain public funding from time to time, to carry out scientific post occupancy analysis of their building projects. That is, to use sensors in the building which are monitored for a period of a year or more after occupation, to understand exactly how the building is performing and how the users are interacting with it. You see, it is a new developing field, Post Occupancy Analysis. But it can be quite scientific also.

In everyday practice, we do a lot of post occupancy analysis without releasing it. We do it for reasons of health and safety and fire safety management. A common experiment such as a fire drill, is an example of post occupancy analysis. You cannot run a fire drill actually, without the building being there, and the occupants being in it. In terms of construction durability and energy efficiency, I am sure there are people such as the Useable Building Trust working in that area, to see how it could be applied in the real world. It is about developing a good methodology that can be applied scientifically. Then we can at least all argue over good data and results, as opposed to making up things and firing them at one another. Btw, Bill Bordass, who was a pioneer figure behind the organisation I mention is on Linked In, in case anyone cared to make a contact, or get Mr. Bordass maybe for a Green Building Advisor interview.


33.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 17:33

Edited Wed, 09/07/2011 - 17:46.

Comment to Martin
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

I would seem to me Martin, that an organisation such as the Useable Building Trust, and the Green Building Advisor are in fact, run my people who have drank from the same well. That is the Whole Earth Catalogue days, and the very earliest ideas about environmentally sustainable ways of living. Maybe it would make sense for both your organisations to interact some more, and share some articles, or some ideas.

Just another one of my daft suggestions. Maybe it could work out nicely from both your points of view, and greatly expand the areas that both of you can cover. I am sure when some of the north American passive buildings reach the age of ten years and beyond, the kinds of methodologies developed by the Useable Building Trust will be useful to have, in collecting data and putting it into a format for a proper article, which could be made public. One could carry out rational comparisons between Frank Llyod Wright organic architecture and modern day passive or net zero projects. That would be really something, wouldn't it?


34.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 19:40

First Herbert & Katherine Jacobs house 1936/37
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

1937 cost including architect's fee $5,500, inflation-adjusted value $86,000 today.
http://preview.tinyurl.com/3spb7wy


35.
Wed, 09/07/2011 - 22:26

More Green? FLW or Modernists?
by j chesnut

Helpful? 0

I'm a fan of FLW's smaller scale residential work and I am also nostalgic about using old school building materials.
However after reading Colin Porteous' book 'The New eco-Architecture: Alternatives from the modern movement' I gained a new appreciation for the pioneering work Walter Gropius did in the states in the 1950s, in particular employing composition wall types that contained layers dedicated to thermal transfer resistance while Wright relied on a big hearth.


36.
Thu, 09/08/2011 - 12:43

Gropius, Interesting
by Brian O' Hanlon

Helpful? 0

J Chestnut,

Thanks for the reference.


37.
Mon, 11/14/2011 - 19:34

insulation below grade + water heaters
by Heather Gayle Holdridge

Helpful? 0

well, here is one architect who loves listening to these interviews and reading all your articles!
we've been looking very closely at the insulation we specify and are comfortable with the current opinion of polyiso being the best option for above grade applications. could you please provide more insight or direction on what insulation to use below grade? i have read that EPS with a low permeance (I believe the lowest available is a permeance of 2) could work below grade. USGBC green home guide says EPS can be used below grade if coated with a plastic or foil film but that is where they leave it - sounds messy and not an ideal installation. Is there any other alternative?? One of our consultants has said that 6 inches of pumice has the same R value as one inch of foam...

I learned recently that on demand water heaters create what is know as a cold sandwich. They require more maintenance and a water softener for warranty. I thought that on demand pumps were perhaps the way to go but recently learned there is a need for an extra expansion tank in order to deal with the pressure of the cold water being pushed back into the cold water line and storage tank. This is a pretty important detail that until now we were not aware of. There seem to be other potential problems with this issue. Do you have any thoughts on this? I can provide more detail on the pump and expansion tank if necessary.

thanks,
jennifer young (signed on thru our office account)


38.
Mon, 11/14/2011 - 21:00

Response to Jennifer
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Jennifer,
It's perfectly possible to use EPS below grade. Just specify Type IX EPS, which is dense enough to resist water absorption.

Newer on-demand water heaters do a better job and are less likely to create cold-sandwich issues, but good old-fashioned tank-type water heaters probably still make the most sense for most users.


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