This article was originally published in the July/August 1996 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online July/August 1996

in energy

Building Energy: 
A Meeting of Minds

Conference participants gather at the trade show and exhibitor reception during the Building Energy conference.
The Building Energy conference is one place where people are not afraid to talk about their philosophies. Amidst technical sessions on the chemistry, physics, and engineering aspects of building technologies, photovoltaics, lighting, and architecture, keynote and luncheon speakers presented their views of the big picture.

Noted environmental architect Sim Van der Ryn began the dialogue with the following analogy to how our society deals with its profligate energy use. A room filled with people is equipped with mops and buckets, and a tap is turned on full blast. Most of the people in the room run around frantically trying to mop up the water. The one sane person in the room turns off the tap.

Others attending would not allow the analogy to stand. Donald Aitken of the Union of Concerned Scientists jokingly added another group of participants-the scientists who, as the flood rises, busily study the threshold. He pointed out that the people with the mops and buckets are better than those who stand by and do nothing. Aitken proposed that while technology alone is not the answer, meeting the needs of ecological sustainability drives the development of appropriate technology to support those needs. Following along the same lines, Christine Ervin, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, painted a picture of a future utopia built on high technology and good planning. Her vision depends upon high-efficiency equipment, computers that allow telecommuting and automated homes, improved building materials, advanced house controls, electric cars, and photovoltaic technologies.

Building Energy was actually three conferences in one. The 12th annual Quality Building conference was joined by Renew '96: Promoting a Renewable Energy Future, and the first International Solar Electric Buildings conference. While solar energy companies, architects, and environmental activists got into the nuts and bolts of increasing solar energy use in the United States, international experts discussed solar projects in Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Austria.

The Quality Building conference also broadened its horizons beyond North America. In one lively session, Dag Roalkvam of Norway presented an alternative to the philosophy of build it tight and ventilate right. He claims that a breathing wall or ceiling, which allows air to pass slowly through, can provide improved ventilation and limit heat loss. The method can work only if the rest of the house is far tighter than even good builders in the United States typically build.

Others also discussed unconventional construction techniques, such as building with straw bales and rammed earth (see New Pioneering in Straw Bale Building, p. 27). Steve Loken of the Center for Resourceful Building Technology described several lumber products that use wood more efficiently than standard wood studs. In a discussion of recycling and reuse, he pointed out that metal studs can be taken apart and reused when a house is demolished.

When houses are constructed well, they can often get by with heating system capacities of 25,000 Btu/h or less. According to Mark Kelley of Building Science Engineering, such homes can eliminate ductwork, using direct distribution from stoves, floor heaters, wall heaters, and individual space heaters. Combined heating and domestic hot water equipment also becomes more practical.

In a session on the growing popularity of ground source heat pumps, contractors shared their experiences with installing different types of ground loops for houses with various soil types and space availability. Several utilities in New England are encouraging the use of ground source heat pumps by offering rebates.

Another important topic was how to get energy-efficient practices into the remodeling industry. Paul Eldrenkamp, a remodeler in Massachusetts, said that the remodeling industry has very few barriers to entry, so remodelers often have little training, particularly in the energy aspects of buildings. Since remodeling jobs tend to be done on a low budget, the contractor often does not include an architect in the design phase. And because homeowners do not understand how to make their additions or conversions energy-efficient, they do not demand quality air sealing and insulation from their contractors. David Legg of Xenergy discussed the importance of attending to framing details during a remodel, and getting this information and training to the people working at the job site.

Building Energy was held March 4-6 in Boston, and 944 people participated, including 66 international attendees from 18 countries. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association organized the event and has already begun planning Building Energy '97 for next winter. For more information, contact NESEA at (413)774-6051.

-Jeanne Byrne


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