If only there was some common agreement about what's important when it comes to energy and design
Participating in a tweet chat raised some interesting answers but even more interesting questions.
One of the problems in writing about sustainable design and green living is that it is such a moving target; our understanding of the issues changes, our technologies evolve, and the list of challenges we face is as variable as the weather. So it was fascinating to spend an hour participating in a twitter chat hosted by Design Milk and Dwell:
Welcome to the #ModernMonday chat! Let's talk about energy efficiency and passive living!— Design Milk (@designmilk) September 18, 2017
There were so many times I wanted to jump in with a whole lot more than 140 characters, because these are issues that we have been talking about on TreeHugger forever. I thought it might be interesting to look at what others are thinking, and to link to some TreeHugger posts on these issues.
Way past his bedtime, Elrond Burrell checked in from New Zealand to pitch for Passivhaus. NAPHN, or the North American Passive House Network, was one of the organizers of the chat so there were a lot of passive people getting active here. (You will note a couple of different ways that the term Passivhaus is spelled. I like the original Passivhaus; In North America Passive House is used, and some are trying to brand it as PassiveHouse. You will see all three.)
Also missing dinner for this was the head of the Passivhaus movement, Dr. Feist himself, tweeting from Germany. His answer was particularly important because most people in North America think that Passivhaus is for houses only; he dove in early to remind everyone that this is a bigger story.
Responses to question 2 were more varied and more problematic.
A2: Updating your windows goes a LONG way! #modernmonday— dwell (@dwell) September 18, 2017
Almost immediately the classic response came up – change your windows. But in North America, most people change windows that have an R value of maybe 1 to windows that, if they are lucky, get up to 3. It is hugely expensive and disruptive and almost never delivers a return anywhere near what is promised by the window salespeople. North Americans are rarely willing to pay the cost of European-style windows that come up to Passivhaus standards, and much of the money they spend on window replacement is wasted. Study after study has shown that it is one of the last things that people should do. If you are doing a full Passivhaus retrofit, then windows are obviously part of the package, but for most people it is not the place to start. More on window replacement in TreeHugger:
There are much cheaper alternatives: Don't replace those old windows before you try window inserts
I believe that Andrew had the best answer:
Improving air tightness seem to be the best low hanging fruit for cost benefits- and improves comfort dramatically. #modernmonday— ʍǝɹpuɐ michler (@AndrewMichler) September 18, 2017
This one showed, I believe, the biggest disconnect between what makes a difference, what's trivial and what's just wrong.
#ModernMonday look at the whole picture- transportation, location as well as design. Get a bike.— Lloyd Alter (@lloydalter) September 18, 2017
I dove in right away to stress that you can't just think of your house when you are talking about saving energy on a daily basis; it is just part of your life.
RT via_arch: A4. Not taking the car is 1 way to easily conserve energy on a daily basis ;-)#ModernMonday Dwell designmilk PassiveHouseCal …— TheArtRT's (@theArtRTs) September 18, 2017
Elrond in New Zealand, a premier Passive House architect, agreed.
There were a few who responded with this, but hardly any who said "change your bulbs to LEDs." Running around turning out all your lights is still a good idea but, really, the bulbs use very little energy; you have to turn off six or seven of them to be equivalent to one old incandescent bulb.
RT RT elementalgreen: A4: Use smart home technology to minimize heating and cooling when house is empty. #ModernMonday PassiveHouseCal NAPH…— Milwaukee Roofing (@roofmilwaukee) September 18, 2017
Then there is the whole question of the smart home. As TreeHugger Sami has demonstrated, a smart thermostat can make a big difference if you are in a drafty old house. But as I have noted, in a dumb house with lots of insulation, the smart thermostat would be bored stupid, because the house doesn't cool down. Two hundred bucks for a Nest thermostat isn't a lot (Sami claims it cut his bills by 20 percent) but I still think that dumb tech like insulation wins over smart tech anytime. I worry that smart tech is a diversion which overpromises and underdelivers. More in TreeHugger:
The overwhelming response to this question was of course, lower energy bills.
Your monthly energy bill won't be more than a good pizza with your partner. Not to mention the unforgettable indoor climate #ModernMonday— Wolfgang Feist (@WolfgangFeist) September 18, 2017
However, I think Dr. Feist got this answer wrong. He is writing from Germany where pizzas, like houses, cost more per square foot than in America. Someone would have to do serious research to figure out if you actually could heat your house for the price of a standard American pizza. Fortunately he also mentions indoor climate, which I think is the real selling feature of Passivhaus and its real advantage. I will leave the last answer on this one to Bronwyn:
In the end, it seems that the community is still focused on single family houses (almost all the houses they loved were standing alone in the country), and is still getting hung up on minor tweaks instead of the bigger pictures of land use and transportation. People talked about getting more efficient appliances but not one mentioned using a clothesline, which a decade ago was all anyone talked about. The words "carbon dioxide" never came up, when that is the fundamental reason behind saving energy these days, the fundamental driver of the Passivhaus movement.
I suspect that if the first question had been "Let's talk about carbon" instead of "Let's talk about energy efficiency" that the audience, and the answers would have been different; the problem is that they should be exactly the same.