Green Building News

Green Building News July 2003

July 24, 2003

Sprawl Strains Family Budgets

A new report shows that transportation costs are taking an even bigger bite out of the family pocketbook, with America’s families now spending more than 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation, an expense second only to housing and greater than food and health care combined. The report says that the nation’s poorest families are especially hard hit, spending more than 40 percent of their take home pay just to get around, an expenditure that has risen 33 percent since 1992 and is making it all the more difficult for lower income families to afford housing, health care, and other critical services.

The report, titled Transportation Costs and the American Dream: Why a Lack of Transportation Choices Strains the Family Budget and Hinders Homeownership, was written by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. It uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to rank metro areas according to the portion of household expenditures devoted to transportation.

Transportation costs are highest in sprawling areas such as Tampa, Phoenix and Dallas, due to spread out development patterns, the lack of transportation choices and the absence of convenient neighborhoods within walking distance of shops and schools.  For many low and middle income families, the costs of owning and maintaining several vehicles may even be prohibiting their ability to own a home, one of the most reliable forms of wealth creation.

“As families know, housing and transportation costs are intrinsically linked. Rising home costs push families to the edge of urban areas in search of affordable housing, but these families then face higher transportation costs.  Rising transportation costs -- particularly the need to own one or more cars -- mean that families have less to spend on housing and are less likely to be able to rent or buy decent, affordable housing,” says Kim Schaffer, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“Due to the doubling of transportation costs over the last 40 years, families are stuck in neutral. The American dream of the car has prevented the American dream of home ownership,” said Scott Bernstein, President of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and STPP Board Member.

The report concludes that shifting government priorities to increase public investment in public transit and improve existing assets to better accommodate more transportation choices can greatly reduce household costs of transportation -- helping American families save hard earned money during tight economic times.

The report finds that the top ten metro areas where transportation takes the biggest bite out of the household budget are: Tampa, Phoenix, Dallas-Ft-Worth, San Diego, Cleveland, Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis.


Computer Model Aids Moisture Research

Researchers in Canada have developed a computer model intended to quantify how fast a wall assembly can dry out after a major moisture load. They have developed methods that show the sensitivity of certain components and of climate to good moisture-tolerant design. These new analysis methods will allow designers to evaluate new, innovative wall designs and products and to compare their performance to typical construction.

In the Moisture Management in Exterior Walls (MEWS) consortium project, researchers at the Institute for Research in Construction (National Research Center Canada) conducted a large parametric study using IRC's two-dimensional hygrothermal (combined effects of heat, air and moisture) model hygIRC to "expose" virtual wall assemblies to moisture loading from a range of outdoor climates found across North America. The project's main objective was to study the factors that contribute to maintaining certain elements of these assemblies below 95 percent relative humidity (RH) when their temperature (T) was above 5°C. Threshold RH and T conditions were selected for their relationship to the onset of wood decay.

Researchers found that water in the stud cavity was detrimental to the adjacent wall materials (i.e., the bottom plate) even in Phoenix where wetting loads were low and the drying potential high. As the climate severity increased, so did the duration of wetness of the wall elements above the threshold conditions. The study showed that reducing the wetting of the stud cavity had the greatest effect on the RH levels at the bottom plate. Unless the wetting of the stud cavity was reduced significantly, designing the walls to dry out by evaporation offered small net benefits.

While designers and builders can't control the climate, they can take steps to prevent moisture damage. Not surprisingly, there are two complimentary design goals. First, use common sense to detail the structure to minimize the amount of water entering the walls by sloping all horizontal elements away from the structure, projecting the roof well over the wall and effective flashing around all wall penetrations (windows, doors, etc.) Second, increase the drying potential of the wall structure.

The value of the computer model lies in the speed with which researchers can compare various combinations of materials, details and moisture loads. One wall system that holds promise includes sheathing materials that is both air and vapor permeable with an open cavity behind the siding (sometimes called a "rainscreen").

More details on the computer model and the MEWS project is available on the Institute for Research in Construction newsletter Construction Innovation  Volume 8 Number 2, June, 2003.


EPA Launches Vermiculite Awareness Program

The federal government has launched a national consumer awareness campaign to warn the public that vermiculite attic insulation may contain asbestos. Since some vermiculite attic insulation can contain very low levels of microscopic asbestos fibers, it is important that consumers are aware of the precautions they can take to protect against disturbing and inhaling the asbestos fibers.

"The government believes that people should be aware that some vermiculite attic insulation can contain microscopic asbestos fibers, and there are practical steps that homeowners can take to minimize exposure. People who have homes with vermiculite attic insulation should become informed, not alarmed," said Stephen L. Johnson, EPA's Assistant Administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances. "By using the information in this campaign, people can determine if their home contains vermiculite attic insulation and learn how to properly manage it. Well informed consumers can reduce the possibility for exposure to asbestos from vermiculite attic insulation and minimize potential risks."

The key recommendations for homeowners to minimize exposure are:

  • Homeowners should not disturb vermiculite attic insulation. Any disturbance has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air.
  • If homeowners must go into attic space with vermiculite insulation, they should make every effort to limit the number, duration and activity level of those trips. Boxes or other items should not be stored in attics if retrieving them will disturb the insulation.
  • Children should not be allowed to play in an attic with open areas of vermiculite insulation.
  • Homeowners should never attempt to remove the vermiculite insulation. If removal is necessary, hire professionals trained and certified to safely remove the material.
  • If you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the vermiculite, hire professionals trained and certified to handle asbestos to safely remove the material.

Due to the scientific uncertainties associated with existing testing techniques, there is no easy way or dependable testing method to differentiate between vermiculite insulation that might have some asbestos fibers and vermiculite insulation that does not. Home testing vermiculite in attics is not currently practical. Therefore, it is best to assume that the material may contain asbestos and take the appropriate precautions. That is why EPA and ATSDR are today going forward with this consumer awareness campaign for homeowners that will allow them to identify the presence of vermiculite insulation in their attics, and if they have it, how best to reduce their potential exposure to the asbestos it may contain.

Vermiculite is a granular product -- absorbent and resistant to heat -- that has been in commerce for almost 80 years. Much of the vermiculite used to make attic insulation originated from a mine in Libby, Montana (See Green Building News September 2000), where there were natural veins of asbestos in the earth. That mine closed in 1990. Currently, vermiculite is mined at three U.S. facilities and in other countries which have lower levels of asbestos contamination in the finished material.

Several documents are available through the EPA web site, including: a pamphlet showing how to recognize and manage vermiculite, a preliminary scientific study on six homes with vermiculite attic insulation, a study by Global Environment and Technology Foundation, and EPA's new Framework for the Asbestos Action Plan.


Quad-Lock Introduces Handy Accessory for ICF Finishing

Wire Top Ties from Quad-LockQuad-Lock recently announced the new Wire Top Tie, which works exclusively with the Quad-Lock insulating concrete form system to create a plumb top finish to the wall using less material and labor.

Quad-Lock's Wire Top Ties increase the speed of finishing the top of walls. They save time on bracing and it is no longer necessary to cut wood members, which later require stripping. Because spreader cleats are not needed, it is also easier to trowel the top of the concrete. The Wire Top Ties keep the top panels plumb, and when used in conjunction with Quad-Lock J-track, the wall is kept secure and in position, creating a straighter wall.

The Wire Top Tie has been successfully tested for a year and is a new addition to the Quad-Lock system product line. Dacs Industries, a Quad-Lock dealer with a background in auto parts manufacturing, developed the tie. They saw an opportunity to invent a product that would make the building process quicker and better for their contractors. Quad-Lock now stocks an inventory of the new Wire Top Tie for all available wall widths. The Wire Top Ties are sold in boxes of 100 and are competitively priced.


Herman Miller Introduces the Mirra Work Chair

Mirra ChairMirra is an environmentally-advanced work chair from Herman Miller that features the one-piece TriFlex backrest with built-in flex zones, and FlexFront, an adjustable flexing front edge seat that allows the sitter to control seat depth. The geometric shapes in Mirra's back, and the chair's suspended mesh seat, provide custom contouring and prevent heat build-up by allowing air to circulate around the upper torso, thighs, and buttocks. Up to 96 percent of Mirra's materials can be recycled at the end of the chair's useful life.

Mirra employs both passive and active seating adjustments. Passive adjustments automatically respond to each user's body shape and movements to provide outstanding support. Active adjustments give users the ability to fine-tune their sitting experience for even greater comfort.

Mirra's central spine construction supports its back while allowing for torsional flex and freedom of movement. The backrest's flex zones are calibrated to adjust to the sitter's height and shape automatically and provide proper support for the lower (sacral), mid (lumbar), and upper (thoracic) regions of the spine.

The chair's flexible back design is based in part on results uncovered by CAESAR (Civilian American European Surface Anthropometric Resource), an extensive international study of body shape and size. Research involved the laser scanning of several thousand subjects in different postures, and revealed a wide variance in back shape, particularly between women and men. Herman Miller, the only office furniture manufacturer involved in the Government/Industry-supported study, has used CAESAR's findings to create Mirra's flexible backrest.

Mirra was scrutinized from top to bottom to assure that its material chemistry, recyclability, manufacturability, packaging and ease of disassembly are environmentally friendly. In fact, Mirra is the first chair designed from the ground-up to meet Herman Miller's Design for the Environment (DfE) protocols, which focus on creating economic value while simultaneously valuing the environment.

Developed in collaboration with international environmental leaders McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), these protocols help define Herman Miller's vision of sustainable capitalism -- using benign, closed-loop materials and processes that protect and enhance the natural environment for future generations.

"Herman Miller's Mirra chair represents the most advanced and complete application of the Cradle-to-Cradle design protocols among any product manufacturer to date," said William McDonough, co-founder and principal, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. "The chair, and the company, confirms that great design and ecological and economic success are possible--today."


Vermont Built Green Program Tackles House Size

The many voluntary green building programs that have sprouted up around the U.S. over the last decade have tip-toed around one crucial element of a home's environmental impact: house size. The new Vermont Built Green program meets the issue head on by granting additional points for smaller-than-average homes and deducting points for larger-than-average homes. This means that a very small home might gain certification by simply meeting the program's minimum requirements, but a larger home might have to accumulate extra points to make up for the size penalty. The program is sponsored by Building for Social Responsibility.


Antron® Sustainable Flooring Performance Award

Antron® is now accepting entries for the 2003 Antron® Sustainable Flooring Performance Award competition. The award recognizes sustainable interior design practices through the use of performance driven flooring in commercial carpet applications. In addition to aesthetics and functionality, entries will be judged on the ability of the design to meet company business objectives over time through sustainable material selection.

Winners will be part of a national publicity campaign and receive a $1,000 monetary prize. An additional $1,000 grant will be awarded to the environmental research project of the winner’s choice.

All award entries must be received no later than September 12, 2003.
Call for entry forms can be accessed by visiting Information on last year’s winner also is available online. For more information call 1-800-4-DUPONT, option 2.


Low-income Housing Employs PATH Concepts

New technologies in home building that reduce material costs, improve energy efficiency and durability, and lessen the impact on the environment were recently displayed in a demonstration home -- not a futuristic model, but a sample of low-income housing in the Cameron Park Colonia settlement. The home, built by the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB) and developed with technical assistance from the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), was unveiled recently in Brownsville, Texas.

Among the technologies featured in this home are: plastic manifold water distribution with PEX tubing; air admittance valves; value-optimized framing; intake-only ventilation system; low-E glazing; higher-efficiency HVAC; and increased levels of insulation and gap sealing.

The first PATH home built in a colonia (a substandard housing settlement on the Texas-Mexico border), the demonstration home will benefit those most in need of a reduction in energy costs. These improvements help eliminate unnecessary materials, meet stringent Texas building codes for wind resistance, utilize advanced cooling techniques, and bring some very innovative energy-saving and environmentally-sound building techniques and products to the demonstration home.

PATH, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, collaborated with CDCB and the Rio Grande Valley Multibank to achieve common goals of building economical and energy-efficient homes for people with the greatest housing needs. The demonstration home has been built with the assistance of the CDCB's YouthBuild program, which provides work opportunities for local low-income youth who have dropped out of school. The CDCB's Rural and Colonia Loan Program is helping to finance the construction of affordable homes in this and other blighted areas in the region. Steven Winter Associates, Inc. provides technical consulting on the project.


PATH Identifies High-Tech Moisture Protection Technology

Through its technology scanning efforts, the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) has identified an electronic method of stopping moisture in the ground from entering a structure through below-grade concrete and masonry structures. Electro-osmotic de-moisturizing, or EODM, technology can reduce or eliminate mold, mildew, radon, odors, allergies and other indoor air quality problems.

EODM technology uses low-frequency radio waves to neutralize the electrical charges that allow capillary action to occur. By combining these radio waves with the natural properties of the earth, water and masonry, the technology impedes the intrusion of ground moisture into masonry and creates a virtual electronic shield around a building to keep moisture out. It prevents damage to building contents from moisture and mold, damage to wiring, piping and other equipment from corrosion, and discoloration and damage to masonry walls that result from mineralization and efflorescence. The system does not employ chemicals, is minimally invasive and is not limited by a structure's size or use. The device requires only about 100 Watts of power.

The method, developed and perfected by the European inventor Hamatrol®, has been demonstrated, tested and used successfully in over 2,500 installations across Europe and North America. It is distributed in the U.S. by Moisture Solutions.


PAR-PAC Ordered to Stop Sales

Cellulose insulation maker PAR-PAC has been ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop selling it's product. According to an EPA news release, Parapets claim that the product kills mold brings it under EPA pesticide regulations. "Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Reidentified Act products claiming to prevent, destroy, or repel pests, including molds and fungus, are considered pesticides and must be registered."


California Universities Establish Green Building Policy

The University of California Board of Regents approved a university wide policy for the design of "green" buildings and a standard for the use of "clean" energy. The policy creates a framework for UP to improve its energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

The "Green Building Policy and Clean Energy Standard" calls for UP to adopt principles of energy efficiency and sustainability in its capital projects to the fullest extent possible, taking into account budgetary constraints and regulatory and programmatic requirements.

In addition, it calls for the university to minimize its impact on the environment and reduce non-renewable energy use by purchasing green power from the electrical grid, promoting energy efficiency, and creating local renewable power sources.

The policy will be applied to all proposed and existing university facilities. The regents will receive an annual report that examines impacts of the policy on energy utilization and building design and on operating costs.

The adoption of this policy is the first step toward the development and implementation of a larger, comprehensive sustainability policy for UP. The university will finalize the policies implementation guidelines for the campuses. Draft recommendations on how UP could implement the standards outlined in the regents' policy are available in a fact sheet (PDF).


2004 ENERGY STAR Award Applications Available

Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy recognize leading companies and organizations for their outstanding contributions to environmental protection and energy efficiency through their partnerships with ENERGY STAR. EPA and DOE are pleased to announce that applications for the 2004 ENERGY STAR Awards are now available.

All organizations participating in ENERGY STAR are encouraged to apply for a 2004 ENERGY STAR Award. To be considered, an organization must meet the specific eligibility requirements in the award application and submit a complete application package by December 5, 2003. Instructions and applications are available at the Energy Star Web site.


New York Offers Grants for Products and Systems

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is seeking proposals to develop, demonstrate or commercialize innovative building products and systems for residential, commercial and institutional buildings. The proposed technologies must provide energy, economic and/or environmental benefits in New York State. NYSERDA anticipates making multiple awards of up to $200,000 per project.

Eligible projects include but are not limited to:

  • Development of materials and products that improve building performance;
  • Demonstration of construction techniques that better manage moisture in buildings;
  • Development of manufacturing methods that yield productivity gains in the fabrication of building products;
  • Demonstration of indoor air quality strategies that reduce the energy impact of maintaining occupants' comfort and health; and
  • Design of products that improve building security and energy efficiency.
  • Eligible project types include new technologies or substantial improvements to existing technologies.

NYSERDA will make multiple awards for a total not to exceed $750,000 for this opportunity.


IEEE 1547 Interconnection Standard Approved

The road to a true "distributed electricity generation" future was recently repaved with the approval of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 1547 Standard for Interconnecting Distributed Resources With Electric Power Systems. The action was taken by the IEEE Standards Board in June.

This standard establishes the long-awaited technical foundation to allow the interconnection of all distributed generation technologies with the electric grid. It also ensures that major investments in distributed generation technology development by the federal government and industry will result in real-world applications providing alternative sources of electric power to the electric utility operating infrastructure.

The approval of the standard will have a significant effect on how the energy industry does business in the future and will influence the way the electrical distribution system will operate -- with distributed generators and two-way flow of electric energy. This national standard may be used in federal legislation and rulemaking and state public utility commission deliberations and by more than 3,000 utilities in formulating technical requirements for interconnection agreements.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has published a short description of distributed generation and how this standard fits in called Interconnection Standards Development (PDF).

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