Sunday, November 11, 2007

Winter wins, concrete pour comes in second

The pressure is on!

Tim and Don from Johnston Masonry get the November recognition award. While I grumbled and groaned over losing slab pouring opportunities in October to wet, wet, wet, and more wet weather, they prevailed in the installation of the concrete slabs in early November. Sadly we did have to pour heat energy on to the slab due to the winter that arrived the day of the pour.

One of the challenges was to pick a color for the concrete as well as get the high performance edge details installed as part of the design. As many of you have experienced, picking colors is a painful experience. And for this pick I have to admit, I winged it. The majority of the flooring is intended to be polished concrete, this is in part for the efficiency of thermal radiant heat transfer, but also to reduce the floor finishing material required for the project. Like everything in life today, the selections are overwhelming with respect to approach and potential appearance options for polished concrete. However, when ecological awareness is part of the equation, the choice of color was to simply add an non-toxic additive to the concrete in lieu of later painting or staining with potentially harmful materials. The color we decided to use was “Beach Sand” from Prism, which is produced with a iron oxide-based additive mixed into the concrete just prior to the pour.

I had intended to have concrete samples cast with different color additives and then polished, but ran out of time and good weather opportunities. In the end, I just had to wing it with the help of Tim and Don’s crew simply hoping for the best. Don claims that if I pick my lighting right, I can have the floor look almost any color I want it to be. Not a bad idea. It looks a little like baby dung right now, but I am hoping the ugly duckling will turn into a swan, before it is all over.

Polishing concrete as a floor finish has been used more and more frequently recently for the obvious reasons. Finishes are achieved through grinding the concrete until you get the polished result you are looking to achieve. Hand grinding of the edges is needed unless, like our situation, you plan the casework, or walk-off matting and interior walls to cover up the edges. This greatly reduces the cost of the polishing process. Grinding can occur at any stage during the life of concrete; however, it is easiest to do a couple weeks after the pour.

Getting too creative with the coloring or distribution or seeding of the surface with other materials requires the gods to be with you throughout the process. Many things have to go right for you to get the appearance a precise product, concrete has a way of changing very quickly due to the slightest variable. Wind, heat, water, color, covering, cold… Though concrete is a very touchy product, if you prevail, wow, what a durable amazingly beautiful end result.

We will begin grinding once the all the exterior building envelope is complete.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Window Challenge

When aggressive goals rule, determining which window takes the “Best of Show” in the Green event was the intent of my trip to Germany this past weekend. While en route to Lautenbach, Germany I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, and Miracle” to augment the trips goal of finding more ways to achieve the perfect ecological balance. The book turned out to be the perfect complement to the weekend’s pursuit of finding the “best” windows in the world.

Before I begin, let me introduce you to the cast of characters for this trip:

The first character is Sam Bontrager, better known to many as “Sammy,” or, if you are one of those that have been lucky enough to know him well, “Geisbock.” Sam is an architect with whom I worked for five years at SEH before he took a job with another Minneapolis firm. We have managed to collect a number of stories together through a variety of life’s adventures. Among many fine attributes, he is fluent in spoken and written German. So when I asked for his help in interpreting some technical information about the German windows, he came to my rescue. It just so happens that to satiate his desire to travel, he works for NW Airlines on weekends primarily to avail himself of free travel opportunities for employees. With one desire supporting another, it wasn’t long before he had concocted a free flight to Germany, with me covering the hotel and food expenses of the trip. Sam’s fluency in German and his 100% German DNA came in handy. (Did you know Germans call their cell phones handy’s?).

Klaus Muller, is the window expert and a staunch environmentalist. I think Klaus was green before blue and yellow were even created. Klaus owns Muller windows a small environmentally friendly window manufacturing company whose niche is creating the most energy efficient/ecologically friendly window possible. He is a 35-year-old partner in a three generation family-owned company that is nestled in the foothills of the Black Forest. It is apparent that the Fertile Crescent is still alive and well in this area of Germany. Muller Windows has partnered with several other small, local window manufactures to market their product under the Optiwin label. Their particular niche within this group is to promote these environmentally higher performance windows in the international arena, with specific sights on the US market.
Giving a Readers Digest’s version of what I discovered may not be possible, but here’s my attempt to keep is short and sweet,

Hummmmm, what is the operational definition of “finest”, “best” or “top” when discussing green or environmental friendly windows? The highest ranking requirement, at least for our project in a very cold weather climate, no surprise, is its ability to insulate from the cold. Second most important is the passive solar gain, or what Klaus taught me, the “g” factor or the energy gaining potential of a window, this a W/(mK) unit of measure. The other factors pale in comparison, but are worth mentioning:

Integration into a building design that is aggressive about reducing energy useage.
Use of sustainable/renewable materials
Reuse of waste byproducts

Isolative quality:

Kingsolver describes in her book the benefits of knowing who and how the farmer produces the food you eat. Well, after this weekend I believe these same benefits are present regarding knowing the products for the building industry as well. Sam and I spent three days with Klaus and his family getting to know them and seeing first hand how they walk the talk. There wasn’t a question that he answered without backup material and supporting data to substantiate performance. Below is a copy of the McKinsey Quarterly report that Klaus gave me to describe to us why Muller windows believes that making the insulation value of a window is of highest importance. This chart is making the argument that increasing building insulation provides the biggest bang for the buck in saving long-term operating costs and reducing our negative environmental impacts.

The Passivhaus Institute was founded by Wolfgang Feist, who Klaus endearingly calls the “Pope” of green design in Germany. The Passivhaus Institute is a non-profit, non-commercial organization that has set a very high standard for energy efficiency of buildings. You can read more about it at this web site I will henceforth refer to this institute as the passive building institute, because I believe haus in Passivehaus leaves a somewhat inaccurate impression that the institute deals only with residential construction, which is not the case. Simply put, you set an aggressive bench mark, such as 5 kBTU/ft2 yearly for conditioned spaces, this can only be acquired through very aggressive building design and construction measures of occupied space. A building is certified by Passivhaus Institute to meet these standards only after an stringent energy modeling has been completed and air tightness testing has occurred of the completed building. Over 6,000 buildings in Germany and Europe have been certified through the Passive Building Institute and one in the US. There are three more in the US in the design and or early construction phases.

In order for a window or door to qualify for the Passivhaus building certification, they have to be tested using one of the most stringent window testing labs in the world. Unfortunately for us, no North American wood window can meet or exceed these PassivHaus measures, nor do we have any US made window wood or material that meet these standards. North American windows come close with some of the fiberglass windows now being produced in Boulder Colorado and in Canada. The R factor of the Mueller window is R 7.1 the center of glass is R factor is R 9.47.

It turns out that a “one size fits all” window in terms of energy performance is the only window supplied by most large US window manufacturer (e.g., Anderson, Pella, Marvin). For these companies, it makes sense from a business model to build something that is multipurpose for the US window market, but from a user/buyer having one general all purpose window design that is best used in a temperate climate, greatly inhibits making appropriate choices for what is best in very cold weather climates such as northern Minnesota.

As of this date, my research on high performance windows has not lead me to any companies that can produce the required very high performance as an all-wood window. There is a window called Alpen Fiberglass Windows that have the highest performance window on the market, but they are made outside the US in Canada, and at least for me, they do not represent the most ecologically friendly choice regarding the material used to create them.

As a side note, during my attendance of the GreenBuild conference in Chicago this year I attended the presentation of the 2007 products of the year award session and Alpen Windows was honored with being selected as one of the top ten picks. GreenSpec and Environmental Business News sponsor this selection process. Criteria for their selection process and why they have it is described on their web site at Alpen’s window have an amazing performance of R 20 for the center of glass and R10 for the unit. See attached performance information. When I questioned Alex about the environmental friendliness of fiberglass, he supported my judgment that it is not the best material regarding ecological manufacturing processes, however performance of wood windows has not achieved these higher standards so the tradeoff is a judgment call.
Here is more specific information on the window performance values.

I am seriously thinking of using the glazing product from Alpen windows with the wood frame and sash from Mueller as an approach to our project. Interestingly, Alex Wilson, the presenter also made the statement that unfortunately there are no US windows made that compete with these performance levels.

Additionally it appears that the small, more custom fit window manufacture doesn’t appear to exist in our local market place.

PS: Apparently, low e glass is the standard for all windows in Germany, largely because it is required by law. Low e glass has a R factor of 2.84 to give you a bench mark to compare the difference in the windows.

Passive Solar gain or “g” factor:

The ability of a window to capture as much of the longer wave lengths of the sun that will reduce the heating demands of the building comes in a strong second regarding factors for quality.

The higher the “g” factor the better it will perform in cold climates and the lower the g the better it will perform in warm climates.

The equivalent “g” factor in the US is the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient and again the higher the SHGC the better the window is especially for the south facing glass.

Integrated Design

Touting R or U values, without the realistic R or U values that include the window assembly, is like judging a book by its cover. The real story is how it performs in an assembly. It is pointless to put quality windows in an assembly that greatly reduces its performance. So, unless you are committed to high performance buildings, “one size fits all” windows might be the better investment. Klaus provided data on the loss’s that occur due to the materials adjacent to the window and the need to cover part of the jambs of his windows with insulation to assure the highest R value possible. We will be changing the precast sill to a metal sill to reduce the material that is of low insulating value with a combination of materials that is higher. I will post the window details finished for your review.

Additionally, he reminded me that sealing the inside of the building in lieu of the outside is more important, this prevents the moisture from getting into the insulation and walls. He showed us a material that he uses to create the interior window framing to make a water proof barrier that is demanded by the Passive Building Design.

Use of sustainable materials

The ability to have a wood window that doesn’t need painting, use of wood that is air not kiln dried, comes from a sustainable forest, and uses cork as the insulating material is a prototype window that is hard to beat. Small amounts of metal and sealant are currently used in his windows and are not what Klaus considers as sustainable material, however, but seem necessary until we create a better way to manage the movement of water into and through wood surfaces.

Klaus calls this his ecological window and uses three different three types of wood in them: larch for the exterior wood, pine for the interior, and cork for the insulation. The natural oil finish over the fir interior surface complete the assembly in what appears to be the best answer to a achieving an ecologically friendly window that I have come across to date. My eyes and ears are still wide open though.

Production practices of the window:

The Mueller window is assembled in a factory that is heated by the by waste wood products of his wood window manufacturing process. Because he had more waste than needed to heat his manufacturing facility, he created a small “heating utility company” that serves five other buildings on his street. He sells heat to these buildings from his wood-fired boiler system. Klaus gave us a tour of his 10-year-old wood fired heating system and is shown below in this picture. He thinks he will return his investment for capital output in about 15 years with some help of local governmental support, but return it immediately regarding environmental payback. Emissions are very low using a high temperature combustion for the biomass fuel source. To inaugurate the system he threw a party with live music inside the waste wood hopper.

I need to verify if his building as Passivhaus certified. However, features on his building did include other passive design features such as solar wall for passive gain in the winter and cooling in the summer due to deciduous vines covering the wall, solar shading shutters, etc.

We were able to visit Klaus’ sister’s Passivhaus certified home and were intrigued by the by the supply air vents, the future consideration for turning the house into more than one flat for future older parent care opportunities (cradle to cradle concepts), self closing kitchen drawers that actually pull themselves inward, wood stove that keeps most the heat out of the central living area and into the vestibule, air conditioning unit being supplied by ground source heat pumps, the lack of the need for screens, the need to control fabric breakdown by UV solar radiation, bugler-proof locks, three point locking doors, exterior doors that are the same construction style as the windows thereby keeping the house and all its contents warm, not just the air in the house. We also discussed the idea of “perceived warmth” extensively and how radiant heat from the surrounding building materials can make one feel warm at a lower air temperature. Think of being on a ski hill when the sun is out and how you can feel quite warm, despite the air being very cold. Below are some of the pictures of what I have described above.

Functionality and Aesthetics:

I am going to lump all these into rating criteria, since there really is no good accounting for individual taste. Suffice it to say, the Germans do produce precision made, high quality products when comes to functionality of almost anything. The windows are a tilt and turn style, that allows the window to be open and not be in the path of the user. They have clean lines and little ornamentation to allow for ease of restoration. In my mind, they are indeed a thing of beauty that few would dispute.

Discussion points:

Buying a window 6,000 miles away, when a slightly lower “quality” product can be purchased within 500 miles is arguably a difficult decision to make if energy and reduction of carbon dioxide production is the goal. We have yet to calculate the carbon dioxide generated to ship this windows as well as the reduction in carbon dioxide generation due to it’s high performance over an estimated 50-year window life span. Fiberglass windows of comparable design are available from Canada, but lack some of the sustainable manufacturing practices that Klaus’ windows have to offer. An argument to be made is the need to create a demand for this window in our area so that improved locally produced products become available and thereby making this a more viable choice for Americans.

While Forest Stewardship Council or equivalent certification processes do not exist for German forests, the Germans, and Europeans more generally, have proven themselves by managing for several centuries their renewable forests.

Full circle

After seeing the results achievable by this small German window company, I have come to the conclusion that similar to the unhealthy outcome of our food industry due to a “one size fits all” mentality and monopolizing of the seed industry, an equally unhealthy byproduct of having only a few large manufacturing conglomerates be the sole suppliers of most building products with little variation for application in the highly varied climates in North American. Having only slow moving gorilla company’s that has no mission other than to maximize profits for shareholders as the model for long-term environmental sustainability is not in anyone’s long term best interest. The model of building an economy around the opportunities to reduce emissions in an approach that address’s the business and environmental issues together.

Toilet Selection


We are not talking about endangered feces either; this most appealing subject tends to arouse interest and eventual guffawing. We have been blessed with the most accommodating dung management site possible. To our amazement, we were able to install a gravity feed septic system (no power needed), with a drain field the size of a regulation horse shoe pit. Our soils drain beautifully, thus the idea of complicating the septic system with composting toilets or energy burdened systems did not need to play out. However, the subject is not over until you pick the toilet you wish to christen as your throne. Whew, you can not believe the level of detail you are faced with when picking this simple piece of bathroom hardware. Here’s what seems to matter most:

· Size of turd that can be flushed,

· Amount of water that it takes to flush,

· The probability of training the untrainable how to dual flush,

· How easy is it to cleaning,

· How loud is the flush,

· How high is the seat,

· How easy are they to keep from over flowing or otherwise malfunctioning,

· Are they reliable?

Takeaways from my research:

Yes indeed there are third party testing agencies that will rate whether toilets can truly flush a 100, 250, 500 or even a 1000 gram turd,

My brother flushes while he lays the big one to avoid unnecessary cleaning issues (he is in charge of this household chore),

No matter how much training occurs, the likelihood that Americans will understand a dual flush concept seems next to zip,

You can actually purchase a $5,000 dollar toilet. The amazing things it can do to your privates,

Extremely low flow toilets are making there way into the industry but there are still few choices, which is good and bad. Good because it limits the decision making, bad because it limit the decision making.

The winner was: Kohler’s 1.1 gallon highline pressure assisted high efficiency toilet.

I will post some of these rankings with this blog entry.

Back to Waste Management – Looking for ideas

After spending four hours in a 20 yard roll-off dumpster, another hour or two sorting construction site waste, and a few more hours getting all the recycling bins clearly labeled, I ended up with an interesting assortment of debris. As you might guess the rigid insulation won the volume category, the plastic sheet wrapping came in second, and plastic coated paper third. Scrap wood, while it doesn’t have the volume, wins in the weight category. Lake County recycles cardboard, numbers 1 through 7 plastics, metal, aluminum, household paper, and glass. As you can see my current top rated waste by volume doesn’t fit into any of these categories. OK time to get creative!

Lessens learned thus far:

Set up the waste management program immediately, or as soon as possible after starting construction. Sorting as you go is the best, but good luck if you are working with a wide variety of styles when it comes to waste management, especially in the north woods. Clear delineation of where you are going to pile waste by types allows you to think creatively about what to do with the waste. We are currently hoping to finish the waste management recycling enclosure this week, so that we can recycle waste products on a weekly basis in a weather-protected location that will make it conducive to participate in waste reduction efforts. Regardless of your situation, figure out your waste management, as if it is just as important as drilling your well.

Get the suppliers/manufactures of materials involved; setting up some way to determine how to keep the challenging packaging material from arriving at the construction site in the first place would go a long way in helping with the waste management.

Ferrous (iron-containing) metal products have traditionally used 30% to 35% scrap metal for their end product. The ferrous metal scrap industry sells to the steel mills that in turn sell to the metal manufacturing companies. This is great news, but what are they doing to go beyond the norm?

Ideas we have come up with thus far:

Mike had a good idea yesterday; he suggested we create a mini-questionnaire to go to all the suppliers of material for the project regarding how they are going to deliver the product and what containment style they use. When packaging choices are available, making decisions on how the supplier works with you to limit the more challenging packaging materials by reuse or other sort of environmentally friendly recycling is a smart idea and reveals how green the supplier or manufacture is.

We are planning to grind and chip the wood, EPS rigid insulation, and gypsum to be used in the project as low grade building insulation, mulch or landscape products.

The recycling enclosure will go a long way to make recycling part of the construction routine. By the way, leaving the waste product/packaging at the store where you purchase the item in lieu of taking it with you is also a means to bring home the point that we don’t want it or need it in our lives to the degree it exists today. I did this the other day at the wireless store, I asked the sales person to open the impossible-to-open plastic packaging and keep it while I took the product, instructions and sales receipt. Challenging ourselves to reduce our waste is turning into an intriguing game that gets played out nearly every hour of the day.

OK, here’s where we need ideas, what do we do with the miles of plastic wrapping material that is used to hold together bulk materials? If we compact it to a reasonable size it might be use for something? Can it be recycled? Can it be shredded?

Mike has found this web site, it seems like a great source for waste management information.


Awareness, this entire project has heightened our awareness of environmental issues to a magnitude that I did not anticipate. Be aware of the energy consumption that we misuse on a daily basis, the embodied energy of many materials, waste production and reduction, byproducts of the fuels we choose, green marketing scams, and even the simple idea that making something aesthetically pleasing is a sustainable concept. Short of offing ourselves, there is a tremendous amount of change we can make to help nature keep working in our favor.

Interesting reads on this topic: "Cradle to Cradle by William Mc Donough & Michael Braungart