Last week and today, Mark English and I spoke with Jeff King, president of Jeff King & Company, about what building green really means. Some of his answers surprised us. To paraphrase:
“Finishes are only skin deep, but infrastructure is to the bone.” – Rebecca
How would you define Green Building (as opposed to any other sort)?
To us, it means building the best building we can build. Green building really boils down to having good common sense and best practices.
What is your overall philosophy regarding Green Construction?
It’s not the finishes – it’s the structure, and how it’s built, and the systems.
Green building is really about design. It means optimizing the infrastructure – the power, heat, water systems – using natural daylighting – to ensure efficient use of resources.
A lot of it is in the design and how things are placed. Hot and cold water delivery should be off a single trunk line, with the branch lines minimized. Hot water pipes should be insulated all the way up to the point of use – most builders won’t do that.
For heating, we try to install the highest efficiency system possible for the situation, and optimize the design for the house: including sizing, building exposure and orientation, insulation used, and – very important – the needs of the client.
During a remodel, we reuse materials wherever possible. Leftover lumber gets used elsewhere, for framing, fireblocking, or something else.
I’m skeptical about claims of green, especially when it comes to finishes. Is IceStone really mores sustainable than Carrara marble that comes from a 2,000-year-old quarry? What about some new stone that comes from, say, a new quarry in Brazil – opening up the land in a new place – and then that stone is shipped to China, and then to the States? What’s the carbon footprint of a slab of Carrara vs a slab of Caesar Stone, which is manufactured in Israel?
Finishes are important on one level, but 5 years from now a new owner might buy the place that has all these new sustainable finishes – recycled glass or whatnot – and just rip them all out.
Here’s another example. In San Francisco, very few buildings have insulation. Title 24 requires that insulation be added when rebuilding, but otherwise older buildings don’t have it. That’s because it’s San Francisco. In Michigan, a building without insulation would be absurd! A best practice in this case is to insulate to the max when given the opportunity, even in San Francisco.
Are architects open to your ideas about Green Building?
These days, there’s hardly anyone who’s not talking about it. One designer, who called it all “unproven technology” 4 years ago, just opened a green showroom!
The role of the architect is crucial, because if the architect is not thinking about energy efficiency upfront, it becomes much harder to achieve that same efficiency on the back end. You know this from your Title 24 work.
The architect doesn’t have to do all the planning. The architect designs the project, but the contractor has to service it and install it. This is a partnership opportunity for both builder and architect.
We as green builders have to be cautious about what we buy into.
Do most of your clients understand how Green you build?
Gauging a client’s interest is always tricky. We advertise ourselves as green builders, so we get a lot of interest for that.
Sometimes we have to convince the client that green building is really great building. Or, we talk about health instead. A client might want melamine because it’s easy to clean, but once we tell them about formaldehydes and glues, they’re much more amenable to less toxic alternatives. If the client has allergies, radiant or exchange heating may be a better choice.
The cost savings can be an issue. Convincing a client to go for a $6,000 water heater that’s 95% efficient vs. a standard 80-gallon water heater that costs only $900 and is 80% efficient can be a tough sell. There are installation variables for some of the higher-efficiency systems to get the most out of them, also.
I’ve been in situations where I said, “There’s no way I’m putting in an 80% system,” and I knocked out my markup – that was my contribution to the project.
What’s the best heating system to use?
There’s no one type of heating system that works in every case. For example, people say, “Well, radiant heat is the most efficient.” Well, not if the client likes to turn the heat off at night. If the home is 60 degrees at night and heated to 66 during the day, that’s not efficient for a radiant heat system. On the other hand, if the client has allergies or other sensitivities, radiant might be a better choice.
Do you have any notes about radiant heating?
Radiant heat has made advances to eliminate hot spots and improve heat dispersion. The new type also is simpler to install, and is less vulnerable to puncture during flooring installation.
My understanding is that radiant heat won’t work well with solar thermal. I don’t know why, but that’s what my radiant subcontractors say. I won’t install radiant with solar thermal anymore.
What’s your feeling about on-demand water heating?
I did a couple a few years back, and I won’t do it again, knowing what I know now. For example, we did a 4,000 square foot house with a single on-demand water heater in the attic, and a separate gas furnace in the basement. It works… but not as efficiently as I would have liked.
If I had to do that job over, a higher efficiency solution would have been forced air off of a water heater.
On-demand water heating is good where:
- Home is very small, around 1,000 square feet
- Water heater is positioned close to point of use, 20 feet of pipe max
- Bathrooms are stacked – again, keeps the pipe distances short
One problem with on-demand water heating has to do with what people are used to – cold water sandwiching or a false call, where a person turns on the hot water tap out of habit, runs it for 5 seconds, and then switches it off right when it starts to warm up. With an on-demand heater, it just wastes fuel.
(Mark: A tank water heater also has a reserve of 50-80 gallons which could be useful in an emergency like an earthquake, where water supplies are interrupted)
So, is technology the answer?
Adding technologies just complicates things, involving a lot of front-end costs and sometimes actually increasing your energy costs. For example, the electric power used to pump water up to a solar water heater could, in some instances, offset the solar energy savings.
Overly complicated homes is sort of the sexy side of green, but they can cost more money at the end of the day.
What about home automation?
Home automation has a huge green potential for second homes where people aren’t there all the time.
What about green building in an urban context?
Most green building solutions are for single-family detached homes because there are so many savings to be had. When you translate this to an urban environment, there are additional limitations – fixed orientations, property lines, obstructions that interfere with solar power, and fewer opportunities for passive solar design. We are still at the front of the curve.
You could take advantage of the vertical opportunities, for example drawing cool air from above in the north, in a multi-story building. That’s a 3,000-year-old technique used in Iran.
Yes, you could! Sometimes common sense is the best practice.
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.