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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Report from the NAHB Green Conference

Checking out the concrete quality at local landmarks and learning about green building in Nashville, Tennessee

Image 1 of 4
Like vinyl siding (which looks like freshly painted clapboard, but only from a distance), the concrete columns of Nashville's Parthenon are less convincing up close than they are from 200 yards away.
Image Credit: Martin Holladay
Like vinyl siding (which looks like freshly painted clapboard, but only from a distance), the concrete columns of Nashville's Parthenon are less convincing up close than they are from 200 yards away.
Image Credit: Martin Holladay
At Nashville's Parthenon, the quality of the concrete is pretty good. However, once you get close, it's clear that the columns aren't made of marble. The Renaissance Hotel is only 20 years old, but its concrete façade is already pockmarked with rust stains. At the NAHB Green conference in Nashville, Peter Pfeiffer, an architect from Austin, shared a collection of design tips for hot-climate homes.
Image Credit: Martin Holladay

The NAHB Green conference is being held this week (April 29 to May 1, 2012) in Nashville, Tennessee. Several GBA employees and bloggers — including Dan Morrison, Michael Chandler, Peter Yost, Ted Clifton, and me — are attending.

Nashville has a number of famous buildings, including a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Nashville’s Parthenon isn’t made of quarried marble, however; it’s made of concrete. So how’s the concrete quality? Do the columns resemble marble?

Like vinyl siding (which looks like freshly painted clapboard, but only from a distance), the concrete columns of Nashville’s Parthenon are less convincing up close than they are from 200 yards away. The columns have a kind of exposed-aggregate, sandy finish rather than a smooth-as-marble finish.

The Renaissance Hotel is also made of concrete

Whenever I place concrete, I aim for quality — even if I’m just filling a few Sonotubes. I want to get out the air bubbles and create a smooth finish — and I make sure the rebar is properly placed.

Why is it that modern buildings with concrete façades so often have terrible concrete quality? I’m thinking, for example, of Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building at Yale, a brutalist disaster with concrete so sloppy that the rusting rebar and reinforcing mesh are exposed to the elements.

The NAHB Green conference is being held at the Nashville Convention Center, and many attendees are staying at the attached 25-story hotel, the Renaissance Nashville. The skyscraper is only 20 years old, but its concrete façade is already streaked with rust from projecting steel tie rods or mesh. (See the photo below.) It’s hard to say whether these unsightly concrete disasters are due to an architect’s ignorance or builder sloppiness. In any case, the concrete buildings of Nashville are no match for those on the Acropolis of Athens.

Signs of a continuing recession

This year’s NAHB Green conference is a subdued affair. Attendance is down, and the trade-show floor is downright sleepy.

Residential construction is now at historic lows. Few builders feel flush enough to send many employees to a national conference, so it’s no surprise that the conference rooms at the Nashville Convention Center are half-empty this week. Perhaps next year will be better.

In spite of the low attendance numbers, the quality of the presentations here is high. Peter Yost gave a presentation on adhesives and sealants; Dan Morrison gave a presentation on why builders and architects should see the submission of articles to Fine Homebuilding and Green Building Advisor as a marketing opportunity; and Michael Chandler gave a presentation on best practices. Later today, Gord Cooke will give a presentation on air sealing, and Steve Easley will give a presentation on common energy mistakes made by builders.

Peter Pfeiffer blasts eco-bling

Yesterday morning I attended a presentation, “Seeing Beyond the Glare of Eco-Bling,” by Peter Pfeiffer, a well-known green architect from Austin, Texas. His presentation included an excellent collection of design tips for people building in hot climates.

Here’s a sample of Peter Pfeiffer’s wisdom:

“Green building boils down to this: you are aiming for reduced consumption of stuff. Reduced consumption of energy, water, and nonrenewable building materials. Next, you are aiming for improved health and better indoor air quality. Finally, you are aiming for reduced environmental impact. So don’t develop a site outside of town before you consider remodeling a house in town.”

“Don’t underestimate the value of discussing the obvious. If your new windows leak air because you didn’t do any air sealing — because you didn’t use any low-expansion foam — then you won’t get the energy benefit you expect. I know of one owner who spent $30,000 to replace all his single-pane windows with new double-pane low-e windows, and because of air leaks, there was no change in his energy bills.”

“The city of Austin launched its Green Building Program in 1991. We were giving out free 55-gallon rain-barrels. Then someone decided to check whether homes with rain-barrels had any reduction in water use, and it turned out they didn’t, because the barrels didn’t hold enough water to be meaningful. It was just a feel-good program. So that was discontinued.”

“If you do Manual J modeling, then there is something you can get whenever you model one of your houses — and that is intuition. You’ll notice that a living room that faces west needs about half of the cooling tonnage of the house. So intuition tells you that for your next house, you had better cut back on unshaded windows facing west. In a lot of houses, the AC load is being dominated by sunlight coming in through west windows. So, from looking at the Manual J report, you might realize that maybe you don’t have to worry so much about wall insulation, but maybe you should worry more about unshaded west windows.”

“Shade your windows. The overhangs on my house save us more energy than the solar panels on the roof. They also enhance the living quality, because we don’t have to close our blinds; we don’t get glare. Overhangs add comfort and durability to the home.”

“Shading your windows is often more effective at reducing energy use than replacing your windows with new low-e windows.”

“If a home has a swimming pool, the pool pump is often the single largest consumer of energy in the house. Changing a HERS rating from HERS 55 to HERS 40 is a drop in a bucket compared to replacing a pool pump with a more efficient pump.”

“Buy a lot on an east-west street. East-west streets are better for passive solar design than north-south streets.”

“You want a centrally located air handler with short duct runs. I prefer an airtight all-metal duct system — no flex duct. You also want one centrally located tank-style water heater. That’s much better than three tankless water heaters. We stopped doing tankless water heaters.”

“Green building isn’t the stuff you add on after the design is done. And it is not about LEED points.”


  1. User avater
    Mike Eliason | | #1

    yale's paul rudolph hall
    yale's paul rudolph hall (formerly the A&A building) was only a disaster because of a series of really poor renovations/alterations - after a massive fire. it was restored a few years ago and looks/works/performs much better. the bad concrete/exposed rebar issues seems mostly to have been builder sloppiness which was exacerbated by weather. on large projects, architects aren't specifying rebar placement/layout - and the ACI standards for structural concrete in 1963, as in the 2008 reno, required 2" of concrete for bars larger than #5, 1.5" for #5 or smaller. that standard wasn't followed in the field.

    concurrent to the reno was a horrible, horrible addition by charles gwathmey.

    as for a contemporary concrete building with stunning facade? look no further than morger, degelo + kerez's kunstmuseum lichtenstein - which was polished to a marble-like sheen. walls were prestressed to avoid the need for expansion joints. the swiss are some of the best when it comes to concrete.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Mike Eliason
    I've heard about the renovations of the A&A building at Yale, but I haven't been back to New Haven since the work was done.

    Back when I was an undergraduate, in the early 1970s, the building was only a few years old, and the concrete façade was already in dreadful shape, with exposed rebar everywhere. It was a hostile, even nightmarish building to walk by. At sidewalk level, the building proclaimed a hatred of human beings. Leaning against it was a painful act.

    Here is a photo of a section of the concrete façade that has no rust stains or exposed steel:

  3. Chris Dorsi | | #3

    Summary of Peter Pfeiffer's comments
    Thanks, Martin, for the succinct summary of Peter Pfeiffer's comments at the NAHB conference. He summarizes true-green building better than most practitioners. The good news is that designers, builders, and homeowners can adapt their ways and develop homes vastly more green than the current stock by following a few simple ideas:

    -- Build small. It’s best to use less of any building material. Smaller homes have less impact on the environment both during their construction and throughout their lifetimes.

    -- Remodel your home rather than building a new one. You’ll avoid the cost and environmental impact of buying an entire houseful of new materials. Focus your efforts on improving the efficiency of an existing building instead.

    -- Choose long-lived high-quality building materials. Materials with a long lifespan have less environmental impact than those that wear out quickly. Plus they require less maintenance.

    The details are, of course, more complicated than this. But if you neglect these principles, no amount of green adding-on will reduce the environmental impact of the original bad decisions.

  4. Curt Kinder | | #4

    Preaching to the choir - west glass, pool pumps, water heating
    West Glass

    I'm in a cooling-dominated climate (Florida) and I advise clients as to the best approach to west glass is a multi-tiered defense-in-depth:

    0) Avoid it in the first place

    1) If you must have west glass, pick a site with tall leafy trees on the west side

    2) If you don't have west trees shielding your west glass, put a deep covered porch on the west side

    3) If the porch is out of the question, consider deep overhangs or awnings

    4) if the trees, porch, overhangs or awnings aren't doable, depress the SHGC (solar heat gain coefficient) of the west glass via insect screens, after-market films, or internal films.

    5) Install light colored blinds and close them during the day.

    Of course, if you are going to pull blinds on windows all day, why have the windows in the first place?

    Pool pumps - I have replaced several pool pumps with Pentair Intelliflo units and documented 75-90% reduction in energy use while providing clients MORE daily hours of pump primary specialty is high performance high efficiency HVAC, but I readily and cheerfully admit that a variable speed pool pump pays back far faster than any HVAC solution in my toolbox.

    Pool pumps are a 365 day load whereas HVAC is used only when needed.

    South of I-40, a centrally located heat pump water heater, possibly with demand-switched recirculation if circumstances warrant, is hands down the best hot water solution...far more cost effective than all manner of solar thermal bling.

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