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On this light-hearted holiday, I'm still weighed down by the deadly fires that ripped through Northern California beginning the night of October 7. Having so many friends and clients  impacted by this tragedy made the reality of these fires hit home for me in a way I had never experienced with "typical fire seasons". And it crystallized specific building best practices that I’ve advocated for years—though perhaps not as strongly as I now wish I’d been doing.

With rising temperatures, it's widely agreed that risks from wildfires will only increase. This affects not only property owners but also others impacted by smoke, particulates, and toxins released into the environment (um, that would be everyone!). I hope that in this rebuilding effort--let alone every remodel or new build--the importance of resiliency and health is recognized. Building professionals should thoughtfully consider investing in balanced ventilation systems with filtered supply air, complemented by highly airtight building enclosures; highly fire-resistant materials and details, even if not in a wildland-urban interface (WUI) zone; earth-friendly materials that won't release who-knows-what-scary-stuff if burned. 

So let's work together to create better buildings that anticipate these risks. And by the way, Happy Halloween!

Katy Hollbacher
Principal & Founder, Beyond Efficiency

What first made you aware of the importance of indoor air quality? 

The Beyond Efficiency Team Reveals... in Halloween style
Katy Hollbacher, Principal: When consulting on an affordable multifamily development adjacent to CA Highway 99 in Turlock in 2010, I read a research paper that exposed a clear and strong correlation between childhood asthma rates and residential proximity to freeways. The developer, EAH Housing, was committed to investing in systems that would improve indoor air quality for its low-income residents. This became the first affordable housing project to incorporate a balanced heat recovery ventilation system for each apartment, ensuring continuous filtered fresh air for residents regardless of outdoor pollution. Since then I’ve been a huge advocate for tight building envelopes paired with balanced whole-house ventilation systems.
Dan Johnson, Sustainability Architect: I volunteered to be part of a Lawrence Berkeley Lab indoor air quality study. They mailed sensors to me, and I put them around the house, then mailed them back later. I was shocked to learn that we had elevated levels of formaldehyde in the baby's room! We learned about carpet off-gassing and the importance of cooking exhaust to make corrections.
Jennifer Love, Sustainability Engineer:  A professor at my graduate school did research finding that citrusy and piney cleaning products contain terpenes that react with ozone and form formaldehyde. The research came out at the same time that formaldehyde was recognized as a known human carcinogen. As a result, I switched to unscented products to clean my house, dishes and laundry. The fragrances in products serve no functional purpose and add unnecessary chemicals to our air. I have found that I now notice those added fragrances much more, and they are more irritating than refreshing. I don’t want dishes that smell like flowers or floors that smell like pine. I just want things to be clean, including my air.
Jose Rivero, Sustainability Engineer: The first time I cleaned the intake air filters on my home in West Berkeley and watched the black water go down the drain. I was relieved those pollutants hadn't found their way into my home!
Mrigesh Roy, Energy Engineer: In 2016, I assisted in a research project measuring ozone (O3) and other common gas levels to test air quality in assisted living facilities in Texas. It made me aware of ground-level ozone, which is one of the most common air pollutants. Several studies have been done on exposure to ozone-initiated reaction with furniture and carpet and found increased levels of volatile organic compounds in the spaces. While indoor air quality can be improved with properly designed and maintained heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, in most current houses, indoor air is tightly coupled to outdoor conditions, and are largely unfiltered by HVAC systems.
Justin Tatosian, Mechanical Engineer: I've been aware of indoor air quality since my youth, when my basement bedroom was musty, and I had allergies. In college, our dryer discharged to a bucket, and the bathrooms and kitchen had no fan.  As a young HVAC engineer, I became fascinated with fresh air design for residential projects—especially heat and energy recovery ventilation (HRVs) for cold climates. It became reality when we purchased a 1975 town home. It has tight construction but little insulation or ventilation. I installed an HRV system, and it quickly helped many issues, including interior moisture and condensation. Many of us spend most of our lives in our homes... shouldn’t we live in a healthy and fresh environment?
Betsy Aaron, Operations Manager:  About 10 years ago on a cold winter night around midnight, an alarm sounded in the apartment my husband and I were renting. There was no smoke, and we determined it was a carbon monoxide alarm. We called PG&E, and they sent a technician right over and found the source of the leak. We were instructed to keep the windows open for as long as possible to air out the place. The technician said we were lucky. Had the alarm not sounded, our lives would have been gravely threatened. That's when I really became aware of air quality and that it is not always dependent on our senses or breathing quality. Now we live in a house, and every six months we make sure our carbon monoxide detector battery is current.

Case Study:
Grayson Street @ San Pablo
in Berkeley

 

Interview with Beyond Efficiency's Sustainability Architect About Heating
a 24-unit, 4-story Berkeley Apartment Project
 
by Betsy Aaron
"Beyond Efficiency has a sophisticated understanding of energy modeling. They enabled us to use a more affordable heating system with improved air filtration capabilities while also surpassing State energy code by 10%. Another energy modeling consultant told us unequivocally this could not be done. Beyond Efficiency added significant value and helped make our development financially viable while at the same time improving indoor air quality."
 – Jonathan Astmann, Senior Project Manager, Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA)
Drawing of the SAHA project on Grayson Street at San Pablo in Berkeley.

Q: What did we specifically do to add value to this project?

Dan: We helped SAHA reduce their project's construction cost by changing the heating system to electric resistance heat. It’s an inexpensive heating system to install compared to alternatives. That’s on the surface. But the real value we provided was helping them achieve this responsibly in terms of energy code compliance. As a side benefit, the new design incorporates a fresh air system to the apartments that improves indoor air quality for the occupants. A third benefit is it reduces the greenhouse gas pollution from the building. They won't be burning natural gas for heating. I look at it as a win-win-win.

Q: How did Beyond Efficiency become involved with the project?

Dan: SAHA's contractor, who had seen us help reduce construction cost by taking this approach on another project, recommended us. If they couldn’t bring the project cost down, then the project might not move forward.

Q: What about this particular project stood out to you?

Dan: It’s typical of a lot of infill apartment buildings in the urbanized parts of the East Bay. It’s located along a transportation corridor that has some pollution and acoustic issues. It’s right on San Pablo Avenue, which is a major throughway in Berkeley. It’s in a climate that has been traditionally cool overnight, and they haven’t needed to provide air conditioning in this kind of building. Another aspect of the service we provided is assessing the risk of overheating in the apartments. Apartment buildings are so well insulated now—the glass is so good—that it takes them a long time to cool. If we have a heat wave, the building never cools off, and the temperature builds and builds. That’s the new situation. We have tools to help owners understand the risks and options.

Q: Does this approach help with cooling in particular?

Dan: Cooling is a typical issue on this kind of building. In this case, they are providing ceiling fans, so the apartments are still comfortable even if they are warmer. That’s all that may be necessary for this project.

We found a way to take credit in the energy code for the fresh air system. This wasn’t possible last year. The compliance software changed. And we’re under the 2016 code now, and that lets us to do it. But apartment buildings in these corridors are faced with pollution and noise, so we have to be smart about providing balanced, filtered ventilation.

Q: Are there financial or inspection benefits that come with this code?

Dan: We have more flexibility to make tradeoffs between systems, because this efficient ventilation system is now recognized by code. We can invest in indoor air quality instead of heaters that are seldom used. We can trade off the less efficient parts with the more efficient ones to meet code standards. It gives us more flexibility in how we design the systems. We’re not as constrained as we were under the past code.

Q: Is there something in particular our readers should know if they were thinking of creating a building like this?

Dan: If you’re going to construct buildings, plan for addressing filtered ventilation and overheating right out of the gate. But how can you do it optimally? We’re still thinking it through. We’re most actively working on overheating sensitivity, because we’re not providing air conditioning to save money on construction. But the whole point of the building is to make it a comfortable place for people to live in. So we’re studying that to try to make sure there is no conflict. I’m also actively working on finding a way to use electricity to make hot water for the apartments. If we can come up with that engineering solution, we can potentially remove all the gas service from the building for more construction cost savings, safety, and reduction in greenhouse gas pollution.


Blog Highlight:
Innovations in Multifamily Plumbing

A Snapshot of the 10th Annual WaterSmart Innovations Conference
by Jennifer Love                                                               

In early October, I attended the 10th Annual WaterSmart Innovations Conference in Las Vegas. A repeated theme was “saving water saves energy and vice versa.” Multifamily buildings are a prime example, as domestic hot water (DHW) is a dominant energy use in multifamily. Reducing DHW use and delivering it more efficiently are worthy project goals. Here are some exciting new developments in this arena:

  • Submetering: California passed SB 7, requiring water submetering to individual dwelling units in multifamily buildings constructed after Jan 1, 2018. Studies have found that tenants are more likely to conserve when they are aware of how much they the use. As few projects currently incorporate water submetering, ideally SB7 will spark some conversations among design teams to revisit the status quo and look at designs that allow efficient water distribution on both an individual unit and whole building basis.
  • Leak detection: Water meters are entering the age of technology. Smart meters and software combine to analyze water flow patterns and provide real time information about leaking toilets and dripping showers. Full submetering can be difficult to retrofit on existing buildings, but toilet submetering is very doable with quick payback. Since toilets use 40% of the water in a multifamily building and are responsible for 70% of leaks, this is a good area to target.
  • Peak Demand and Pipe Sizing: IAPMO, the source of our plumbing code, is rolling out a new code in 2018 with a long overdue alternative calculation method for peak demand to replace the current one developed in 1940. The new calculation accounts for efficient plumbing fixtures and modern usage patterns. Significant reductions in peak demand are found compared to the old method. Since peak demand determines pipe sizing, this translates to smaller pipes and water meters thereby reducing building costs.

I am excited to see how I can apply this information and the rest that I learned at the conference to my current and future projects.

Other recent Beyond Efficiency blog posts: 
Exciting Building Products from Passive House Conference
Musings on the Solar Eclipse, One Month Later
Pumping Up Your Savings While Reducing Impact

Notable Events

Beyond Efficiency Is Presenting, Attending or Following These Events

November 3-5, 2017
Rocky Mountain Natural Building Conference 2017, Golden, CO 
Colleague David Arkin from Arkin Tilt Architects will be speaking about new strategies for framing and stacking strawbale wall systems.

January 20-24, 2018
2018 ASHRAE Winter Conference & AHR Expo, Chicago, IL
Mrigesh Roy will be attending this conference to learn about industry trends with regard to resilience and HVAC systems.  

March 7-9, 2018
2018 Housing California, Sacramento, CA
Jen Love and Dan Johnson will attend this conference focused on the affordable housing sector and have submitted a proposal to present on the topic of multifamily electrification.

March 20-22, 2018
2018 ACEEE Hot Water Forum, Portland, OR
Jen Love will attend this forum on improving the efficiency of making, distributing and using hot water.


Report-Back:
PHnw 2017 Fall Passive House Conference

Boise, Idaho

Katy Hollbacher attended and presented at this Passive House conference hosted by Passive House Northwest. The one-day event featured a rich array of inspiring speakers, including a City of Boise council member who outlined the City's aspirational goals for "Lasting environments, innovative enterprises, vibrant communities".

Katy's presentation was "From Envelope to Occupancy: Zero Energy, Step by Step" and outlined Beyond Efficiency’s recommended process and framework for achieving zero energy projects: Visioning and Goal-Setting, Education, Basis of Design, Analysis and Iteration, Implementation, and Feedback.

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