Green Building News

Green Building News April 2009

April 1, 2009

Investments at OSU, PSU Expand Research Capacity

The Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST) has facilitated a $1.6 million collaborative investment in green building research at two Oregon universities that positions the state to establish a research center of national prominence and offers Oregon’s green building businesses access to advanced research tools, expertise and better trained employees.

The investment, at both Oregon State University and Portland State University, funds a network of new, shared laboratories and equipment for developing and testing new green building materials, technologies and entire buildings.

But the investment goes beyond university labs, officials say. It builds a transformative, multi-institutional research model for Oregon that helps fuel the state’s economy, improves education and ultimately creates jobs. The shared facilities will serve Oregon’s growing green building industry, attract green building companies to Oregon and help the state’s universities deepen graduates’ experience with green building.

The investment also demonstrates the State of Oregon’s unique leadership role in green building research and project execution. “Nobody else is pursuing green building research and development in the multi-institutional way that Oregon is,” said David Kenney, president and executive director of Oregon BEST. “This initial investment is the beginning of what will become a center positioned to influence the green building agenda at the national level.”

The public-private partnership being facilitated by Oregon BEST creates the opportunity to pursue funding for a federally-funded national research center. A national center located in Oregon would potentially attract millions of research dollars to the state’s universities.

Oregon BEST used a portion of its public funding to align additional investment from the Engineering and Technology Industry Council (ETIC), the Miller Foundation Grant Fund at PSU, the Oregon University System and university research offices. Future plans call for expanding the network of Oregon BEST research facilities to other university partners, including the University of Oregon and the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Distributing the investment across more than one university enables Oregon to pool research expertise and equipment, positioning faculty research teams to be more competitive nationally when seeking research funding.

The OSU portion of the investment is $920,000, including $400,000 from Oregon BEST, $470,000 from Certificates of Participation (via ETIC), and $50,000 from the OSU Research Office. It establishes the Oregon BEST Green Building Materials Laboratory at OSU, a collaboration between the College of Engineering and the OSU College of Forestry. Research in the shared facility, which will be accessible to and open for research by industry partners, will focus on innovating new green building materials, including: hybrid poplar wood engineered to be three times stronger than old-growth Douglas fir, new types of concrete and pavement that are more durable and environmentally friendly and recycled plastics used as building insulation.

At PSU, the total investment is $651,000, with $218,000 from Oregon BEST, $351,000 from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation (via PSU's Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices) and $82,000 from the Oregon University System.

The funding will establish the Oregon BEST Green Building Research Laboratory at PSU, where researchers from other OUS institutions and industry can use a suite of infrared cameras and thermal characterization equipment to test everything from green roofs and window glazings to interior moisture levels and a building’s surface temperatures. When the equipment is used in conjunction with other federally funded research projects, it will facilitate a broader investigation of the impact of buildings on the urban environment.

Housed in a new LEED Gold building at PSU, the lab will also feature sensing and logging capabilities that can monitor indoor environmental quality and track how buildings respond to a range of activities and conditions, including how occupant behavior impacts building energy use. Some of the sensing equipment will be available to be loaned to industry partners to do onsite testing of new materials and technologies.

The distributed, shared research network model was pioneered in the state by the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) several years ago, and has demonstrated significant success in leveraging a relatively small investment into large-scale funding from a variety of federal sources.

Investing in a distributed network of shared facilities focused on green building research enables Oregon to maximize resources and funding to attain national prominence, Kenney said.

“By teaming up and investing funding strategically, we maximize the impact of the research,” Kenney said. “Here in Oregon, we have a tremendous set of university resources and research expertise that most states can’t assemble: world class architecture, engineering, forestry, computer science control systems, energy research and more. When we combine this expertise with the growing concentration of green building professionals here in Oregon, we extend our national leadership position.”

(See a related article in Green Building News January 2008: Greening the Concrete Jungle, a cooperative venture between OSU and the City of Portland.)

Housing Starts Regain Some Ground In February

Nationwide housing starts turned upward for the first time in eight months in February, posting a 22.2 percent gain that was due primarily to a big bump on the often-volatile multifamily side, according to numbers released from the U.S. Commerce Department.

“While welcome news, this gain only reflects a modest rebound from January, which was the worst month in history for new-home production,” said National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chief Economist David Crowe. “The majority of the gain was due to characteristic volatility on the multifamily side, while single-family housing starts were up just over one percent for the month.”

“Builders did pull a larger volume of single-family permits in February, suggesting a glimmer of hope for the prime home buying season, which is near at hand,” said NAHB Chairman Joe Robson, a home builder from Tulsa, Okla. “That said, we realize there’s a need to be extremely cautious in terms of new building activity going forward, because there’s still quite a lot of inventory out there that needs to be absorbed as foreclosures continue to flood the market in many areas.”

Total U.S. housing starts rose 22.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 583,000 units in February. This gain reflected an 82.3 percent surge to a 226,000-unit pace on the multifamily side and a 1.1 percent gain to a 357,000-unit pace on the single-family side.

Regionally, the only area of the country to post a lower rate of total housing starts for February was the West, with a 24.6 percent decline. The Northeast posted the largest gain, of 88.6 percent, reflecting a rebound from a nearly equal decline in the previous month. Meanwhile, the Midwest posted a 58.5 percent gain following a deep plunge in January, and the South posted a 30.2 percent gain. January-February averages were well below the monthly averages for the final quarter of 2008 in all regions of the country.

Building permits, which can be an indicator of future building activity, rose 3 percent overall to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 547,000 units in February. This reflected an 11 percent gain in single-family permits to 373,000 units and a 10.8 percent decline in multifamily permits to 174,000 units.

By region, building permits recorded a 27.6 percent gain in the Northeast, no change in the Midwest, a nearly 6 percent improvement in the South, and a 13.6 percent decline in the West in February.


Northwest Cities Rank High in Energy Star-Labeled Buildings

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a list of the top 25 cities with the highest number of Energy Star-labeled buildings in 2008. Seattle ranks 10th out of 25 metropolitan areas with 83 buildings acquiring the Energy Star label in 2008.

ENERGY STAR® is an EPA program for buildings that have made significant cuts to their energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions. There are a total of 144 Energy Star-certified buildings in Washington.

These buildings and plants are America’s energy all-stars—they save more, use less and help fight global warming. The Seattle area’s energy efficient buildings saved a total of $16.3 million in costs and resulted in emissions savings equivalent to the annual energy use of 14,400 households. Buildings that earn the Energy Star label use 35 percent less energy than average buildings and emit 35 percent less carbon dioxide.

Portland, Oregon ranked 18th place, tied with Charlotte, NC, with 45 Energy Star-labeled buildings in 2008. There are a total of 85 Energy Star-certified buildings in Oregon.

The Energy Star buildings program can assist any building or plant owner or manager evaluate, plan and implement significant cuts in energy use and costs.

Consumers know to look for the Energy Star label when purchasing home appliances like dishwashers and refrigerators, but the same energy-saving label can also be applied to office buildings, hotels, schools, retail stores and manufacturing facilities.


Recession Refocuses Opinions on Energy-Efficient Products

Although worried about the economy, consumers are willing to buy energy-efficient products and services – if they see immediate savings, according to a national survey released a few days ago.

The survey, one of four annual surveys conducted by The Shelton Group, found that 71 percent of consumers cited saving money as a reason to buy energy-efficient products. Far fewer chose “to protect the environment” (55 percent) and “to protect the quality of life for future generations” (49 percent). That is a notable change from the surveys conducted by The Shelton Group in 2006 and 2007 – before the recession – when consumers cited “to protect the environment” most often.

“Americans are concerned about their jobs, their homes and their bank accounts. They’re now more focused on saving money than saving the Amazon,” said Suzanne Shelton, president of The Shelton Group, which conducted the study. “Yes, conserving energy is the greenest thing anybody can do, but consumers are not buying more efficient products because they want to save the world. They want products that can save them money in the long run.”

Shelton Group keeps a finger on the pulse of shifting consumer attitudes and behaviors about energy efficiency and sustainability through quarterly insight studies: Utility Pulse, Eco Pulse, Green Living Pulse and Energy Pulse. The latest study, Utility Pulse, shows the recession’s profound effect on consumers’ mindset.

“Now more than ever, Americans have a deep desire to be in charge of their lives,” Shelton said. “And seeing utility bills go down $10 to $20 a month brings a lot of peace of mind. It’s a huge motivator.”

According to the survey, consumers said they are likely to take a number of energy- efficient measures after learning they would save over the long term. Among them:

  • 44 percent responded they are likely to buy a programmable thermostat; 32 percent already have;
  • 43 percent responded they are likely to install insulation in their homes; 26 percent already have;
  • 42 percent responded that they are to install a higher-efficiency water heater; 26 percent already have.

The study also showed consumers want results when they buy energy-efficient products, and they are disappointed if they do not see the return on investment they expected:

  • Most (53.3 percent) of those who said they had purchased ENERGY STAR® brand appliances, completed energy-efficient home renovations or participate in special utility programs had seen the reduction in their utility bill that they had expected.
  • Almost a third (32 percent), however, said they had not. This is most likely due to their utility raising rates, or because they are using more energy, thanks to additional gadgets (computers, cell phones, etc.) that they have plugged in. Then there is the third possibility: the “Snackwells effect.”

“A lot of us buy a box of Snackwells and think, ‘They’re low fat, so I can eat all of them.’ Then we wonder why we haven’t lost weight,” Shelton said. “Buying an energy-efficient product can create the same type of effect. We’ll say, ‘I just got a high-efficiency air conditioner, I can lower the temp and make my home even
cooler in the summer.’ Then we get frustrated that our new air conditioner isn’t reducing our utility bills.

“That’s why it’s important that utilities and energy-efficient product manufacturers make sure consumers understand what they’re getting and promote behavior change alongside product purchases,” Shelton added. “A high-efficiency heater doesn’t mean we can turn our home into sauna in the winter.”

The survey also found consumers are taking a variety of “green” measures. Here are the top activities and percentage of consumers taking the action:

  • Always turn off lights, unplug things, turn off power strips – 73 percent
  • Adjust the thermostat and/or hot water heater setting to save energy – 71 percent
  • Replaced most incandescent bulbs with CFLs – 57 percent
  • Bought ENERGY STAR brand appliances, water heater, air conditioner, or furnace – 57 percent
  • Completed energy-efficient home renovations; for example, added insulation, replaced windows, or caulked – 52 percent.

“Green” measures taken by the fewest consumers include:

  • Installed natural/indigenous/low water landscaping – 13 percent
  • Telecommute for work – 10 percent
  • Participate in utility’s green power program – 9 percent
  • Buy carbon offsets for plane trips or for home – 6 percent.

Utility Pulse 2009 was conducted by telephone to 500 respondents in January 2009. Demographic quotas were set for gender, age, race, region and educational attainment to match the overall demographic distribution of the U.S. population. Based on the U.S. Census 2007 American Community survey estimate of the total number of owner-occupied households (75,072,666), the sample has a 95 percent confidence level and a +/- 4.32 percent confidence interval (margin of error). In other words, Shelton can be 95 percent certain that the attitudes and opinions found in this study would closely match those of all U.S. homeowners to within +/- 4.32 percent.


EPA Launches “Fix a Leak Week” To Encourage Water Efficiency

Because minor water leaks account for more than 1 trillion gallons of water wasted each year in U.S. homes, EPA is launching its first “Fix a Leak Week” to remind Americans of the environmental and economic benefits to fixing leaks from household plumbing fixtures and irrigation systems.

To kick off Fix a Leak Week, WaterSense partners in Arizona are demonstrating, through a visual display at a Phoenix home, the amount of water wasted by leaks in just one week. Through the display, WaterSense partners will demonstrate leaky toilets, faucets and showerheads to show how household leaks can waste more than 200 gallons in seven days, identify leak sources inside the home and demonstrate how to fix them.

In most cases, fixture replacement parts can be installed by do-it-yourselfers and pay for themselves in a short amount of time. Remember to look for the WaterSense label if you have to replace a bathroom fixture.

Here are a few water-saving tips:

  • Reduce faucet leaks by checking faucet washers and gaskets for wear and, if necessary, replace the faucet with a WaterSense labeled model.
  • Leaky toilets are most often the result of a worn toilet flapper. Replacing the rubber flapper is a quick fix that could save a home up to 200 gallons of water per day.
  • For a leaky garden hose, replace the nylon or rubber hose washer and ensure a tight connection to the spigot using pipe tape and a wrench.
  • Landscape irrigation systems should be checked each spring before use to make sure they are not damaged by frost or freezing.


Oikos Library

Check out the newest addition to our evolving series on choosing green building products.

Choosing Green Finish Materials: Flooring


AIA National Convention and Design Exposition - Apr. 30 - May 2

The theme of this year's convention is "The Power of Diversity: Practice in a Complex World". Held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, it offers more than 500 programs: workshops, seminars, tours and expo education.

Registration Information.

NAHB National Green Building Conference - May 8-10

Held in Dallas, TX, this national conference targets the mainstream residential building industry. Networking opportunities with designers and suppliers as well as educational sessions are featured. Financier and alternative energy advocate T. Boone Pickens will speak at the Awards Dinner.

Registration Information.

National Conference on Building Commissioning - June 3-5

This year's conference takes place in Seattle, WA, and explores the processes and technological advancements of green buildings. Includes a close examination of building tools and technologies, industry best practices, policy changes, training needs and other key components to efficiency, persistence and lasting performance in commercial buildings.

Registration Information.

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