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Chasing Ice, a documentary, follows the tracks of photographer James Balog and his crew as they set out to create time-lapse motion pictures of the retreat of glaciers.  The idea is to set cameras in place with timers so that each will record one still photograph of a single scene from a single viewpoint, once in twenty-four hours.  The cameras will be left untouched, and the film record retrieved every six months, to be assembled into motion pictures of glaciers in motion.

In 2005 this had never been done before, and requires whole new sets of technology, cameras, timers and voltage regulators, and a team of mountaineering adventurers to place them in some pretty daunting mountainsides.  The locales are at the melting ends of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and Montana.  The results are stunning, in more ways than one.

The glaciers under observation are in a state of accelerated collapse and retreat that, now that it can be seen as a movie, is more horrifying than any pop-culture genre film you will see.  Such films are fiction; this one is just scientific record, undeniably true even for those who still doubt the existence of climate change.  Some of the statistics, presented graphically, recall those of Al Gore’s movie.  Chasing Ice presents a clear picture of science and photographic record, unmistakable and beyond argument, but it carries no taint of politics or posturing.

We follow James Balog and his technical and field team from the germ of the idea in 2005 to the present, as he presents the results to astounded audiences.  These glaciers are as he calls them “the canary in the coal mine,” the sensitive warning system of impending doom.  One glacier is shown retreating in ten years a greater distance than (as the record shows) it had in the previous hundred years, to a haunting piano score that serves to emphasize the unfolding tragedy.  We are witness to the cataclysmic collapse of another glacier, the calving of an iceberg the size of lower Manhattan.   On the crest of Greenland’s icecap, deep canyons of white ice show blue rivers descending into the bottomless pit.  There is no end in sight.  The water is going to lubricate the underside of the icecap, to speed it ever faster to its demise.  At one point Balog, briefly overcome by the magnitude of destruction that he is now recording, pauses to remind us:  “You go out over the horizon—and sometimes you don’t come back.”

There is some hauntingly beautiful still photography also, of ice forms and weird lights, of the aurora borealis, that helps us understand the passion that polar explorers have always shared for these extremes.  But what is more haunting is the thought that these images tell us only the beginning of a story that is unfolding now, that has already begun.  We don’t know exactly how it will end, but the scientific evidence keeps coming in that the earth’s atmospheric temperature has risen, sea levels have risen, the predictions of extreme weather patterns are being proven.

I’m not writing this to convince you of anything.  This movie will be able to do that, and if it succeeds with you, then the best thing you can do is recommend it to everyone you know.

The canary is singing, louder every day.  Can you hear it?

Now playing at the Rafael, but not for long.  http://www.cafilm.org/

Website:  http://www.chasingice.com/

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I was at the 2012 Green Build Conference and trade show (http://www.greenbuildexpo.org/expo/for-attendees) this afternoon, looking for products that will help me create longer-lasting, more energy- and resource-efficient—in a word better—buildings.  Better homes for my clients, better construction projects for the contractors, easier-going on the planet.  (It is, after all, the only planet we’ve got).

My goal in searching out new products/systems is, install once and because the best was in the specifications, the callbacks just don’t happen.  Let the other designers and contractors deal with callbacks.  Our goal is to never have them.  Among the questions I ask:  How long has this particular product been in installed use?   How many installations have you sold?  What sorts of certifications can you provide?  What is its installed cost ratio compared with current industry standard?

The expo floor itself was mammoth, more booths than I recall having seen at any construction industry trade show here in San Francisco.  Usually I can cruise the floor, find and stop to learn about the products that will be useful to me and my clients, and be gone in an hour or so.  Today, three hours later (and I am highly efficient and targeted toward what it is I need) I finally made the last important contact that I had in mind and hit the road.

The most exciting product of the day?  Unico low-diameter FAU systems.  (http://www.unicosystem.com/Home/LandingPages/InteractiveHouseMedia.aspx) high-velocity This is a unified system, so your HVAC installer may be resistant at first, but the installed-costs are comparable (according the rep on hand), and the long term savings remarkable.  My suggestion:  visit their website, give them a call, let them sell you on it as they did me.  They work with first-time installers to get the system in right.

Or maybe it was the puncture-proof underslab vapor barrier that sidesteps all the conflicting information about where does it go and how do you keep it intact while your workers lay the rebar grid?   Try Raven Industries VaporBlock 10 (http://ravenefd.com/products/vaporblock/)

Paint-on sound reduction for existing or new gyp board walls?  Low to zero VOC paints?  Reflective exterior paint solutions that reflect up to 30% of the sun’s heat?  A duct-sealing system that fixes only the leaks, done-in-a-day with before-and-after leakage readouts that give the proof.

Ya gotta be a geek about this stuff.  More on all these issues in future posts.

I would suggest that for all those east-coast homes that just took a beating, since you may have to rebuild some of your systems and may have FEMA money to work with, why not look into rebuilding to a standard that will work to the highest level, if the costs are comparable?  Ask them my questions for yourself, or ask your own, see if you are satisfied with the answers.

Disclaimer:  Just because I recommend something here does not mean I warrant any product or system to operate as indicated.  You make the contact, talk to their reps, get the pitches for yourself, and then decided whether you want to have the best, most efficient projects under your name, or if maybe someone else should take that on.

With all the talk about building green these days, you would think it is something new, maybe solar panels on the roof and high-tech solutions with complicated circuitry and untried ideas. The truth is, you can reduce the energy consumption of a new home or retrofit by as much as 70%, with conventional construction done right.

Think of it. If all the standard energy-saving measures like insulation and caulking were done with the same care and attention to detail as the cabinetwork and finish carpentry, the air you pay to heat would stay in the house and keep you warm, instead of finding its way outside through the walls and attic.

There is a standard of proper wall and ceiling insulation, but the truth is very few of those people whose job it is get it right. This is partly because it is one of the lowest-paid jobs in the business, and the workers are often paid by piecework. It is also because too few people–including owners, contractors, and building inspectors–insist on a good job of installation. The result is–yes the work is done cheaply and quickly. It is the building owners who pay for it over the years, in excess energy bills that need never have been so high.

The standard is known specifically as “Quality Insulation Installation,” or QII. When I asked an insulating contractor if his company provided QII, his answer was, “We train our installers well.” It was his business, and he hadn’t even heard of the standard!

Here is a part of the procedure, paraphrased from Energy Star (energystar.gov):

a. Wall stud cavities should be caulked or foamed to provide a substantially air-tight envelope to the outdoors, attic, garage and crawl space. Top and bottom plates should be continuous and have any openings sealed. Special attention should be paid to plumbing and wiring penetrations through the top plates, electrical boxes that penetrate the sheathing, and the sheathing sealed to the bottom plate.

b. Pay special attention to installation of air-tight air barriers for walls adjoining exterior walls or unconditioned spaces, including walls behind showers/tubs and behind fireplaces, insulated attic kneewalls, staircase walls, the intersection of porch roofs and exterior walls, and skylight shaft walls.

c. Fill each cavity side-to-side, top-to-bottom, and front-to-back. Batt insulation should be installed to fill the cavity and be in contact with the sheathing on the back, the studs at the sides, and the wallboard on the front – no gaps or voids.

Before you spend money on new windows, or blow-in insulation to the walls of your older home, do these two things first. Go in your crawl space and attic, and air-seal every opening you can find with spray foam insulation, and insulate the attic to R-30 or better (have an electrician take a look up there first, to be sure your any lighting or wiring is suitable for burial in insulation). You’ll be surprised and the new-found comfort. Some people will tell you doing these things is a waste of money, but the truth is they are the cheapest investment you can make, with the best results in savings and comfort.

I recently spent the night at a friend’s cabin in Ben Lomond.  The house was built in 1947, in a time an place when building permits, if required at all, were just a permission slip to build something, on a lot somewhere.  Details of the structure before or after were not considered necessary, except as an outline on graph paper, for the assessment rolls.

Things have changed.

Water, sewer, and electricity (but no gas) capacity have always come through public utility systems.  The heating “system” was a woodstove he added himself, in the 1970s.   Various shed-type room additions had been appended over the years, including a 15’x30’ accessory building (red-tagged upon a neighbor’s complaint two decades past, without resolution).

The property as it stands today is a testament to the necessity of a permit process, and more importantly to the idea of integrated design incorporating green building principles from the ground up.

With all the talk about building green these days, you would think it is something new, maybe solar panels on the roof and high-tech solutions with complicated circuitry and untried ideas. The truth is, you can reduce the energy consumption of a new home or retrofit by as much as 70%, with conventional construction done right.

Think of it. If all the standard energy-saving measures like insulation and caulking were done with the same care and attention to detail as the cabinetwork and finish carpentry, the air you pay to heat would stay in the house and keep you warm, instead of finding its way outside through the walls and attic.

There is a standard of proper wall and ceiling insulation, but the truth is very few of those people whose job it is get it right. This is partly because it is one of the lowest-paid jobs in the business, and the workers are often paid by piecework. It is also because too few people–including owners, contractors, and building inspectors–insist on a good job of installation. The result is–yes the work is done cheaply and quickly. It is the building owners who pay for it over the years, in excess energy bills that need never have been so high.

The standard is known specifically as “Quality Insulation Installation,” or QII. When I asked an insulating contractor if his company provided QII, his answer was, “We train our installers well.” It was his business, and he hadn’t even heard of the standard!

Here is a part of the procedure, paraphrased from Energy Star (energystar.gov):

a. Wall stud cavities should be caulked or foamed to provide a substantially air-tight envelope to the outdoors, attic, garage and crawl space. Top and bottom plates should be continuous and have any openings sealed. Special attention should be paid to plumbing and wiring penetrations through the top plates, electrical boxes that penetrate the sheathing, and the sheathing sealed to the bottom plate.

b. Pay special attention to installation of air-tight air barriers for walls adjoining exterior walls or unconditioned spaces, including walls behind showers/tubs and behind fireplaces, insulated attic kneewalls, staircase walls, the intersection of porch roofs and exterior walls, and skylight shaft walls.

c. Fill each cavity side-to-side, top-to-bottom, and front-to-back. Batt insulation should be installed to fill the cavity and be in contact with the sheathing on the back, the studs at the sides, and the wallboard on the front – no gaps or voids.

Before you spend money on new windows, or blow-in insulation to the walls of your older home, do these two things first. Go in your crawl space and attic, and air-seal every opening you can find with spray foam insulation, and insulate the attic to R-30 or better (have an electrician take a look up there first, to be sure your any lighting or wiring is suitable for burial in insulation). You’ll be surprised and the new-found comfort. Some people will tell you doing these things is a waste of money, but the truth is they are the cheapest investment you can make, with the best results in savings and comfort.

First published in the Pacifica Tribune 3/24/10

If every attic in America were insulated to the standards mandated by the state of California, the United States would no longer need to import foreign oil. That is only one measure of the amount of fossil fuel energy wasted nationwide. But energy efficiency is about more that just conservation, it�s about comfort in our homes whatever the weather might be outside them. Innovative concepts like Net-Zero Passive Homes in Germany that have no need of a furnace, or properly insulated homes in Sacramento that have an annual heating/cooling cost of $250/year, are quick examples of energy-efficiency that involves no unusual construction practices or expenses. With a photovoltaic array and a solar water-heater on your roof, you can say goodbye to utility bills. And if we can collectively reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, we may yet save the polar icecaps.

The Passive House is the future of homebuilding. It’s not the same as the passive solar concept from the seventies, but it’s not new. It’s a design system that is just starting to come into its own. Imagine this: a house that is so well built that it doesn’t need a heating system.

That’s right. Does not need a heater, no matter how cold the climate might be. From Fairbanks to Foster City, from Tahoe to Tiburon, every single new home that is in the planning stages right now can be designed using the Passive Home principles that have already been created. Over the last twenty years thousands of these homes have been built throughout the European Union, most of them in Germany and Sweden, where the winters get cold enough to put the design principles to a real-time test.

In recent legislation, the European Union has mandated that ALL new homes, and ALL renovations, meet the Passive Home standard. That is to say, by 2020, every single 2000 sf home on the drawing board will be so well built that its entire heating demand, even on the coldest day of winter, can be met with a hair dryer. That’s right, an ordinary hand-held hair dryer.

There is nothing magic about this, nothing unduly expensive or complicated except getting builders and designers to pay really close attention to certain details of construction. The essence of Passive Design is in very the well though-out and executed sealing air barrier between the interior and the exterior, including flawless insulation of the foundation, walls and roof.

There is more to it, of course. A perfectly sealed house needs a carefully designed ventilation system, one that transfers heat from exhausted air to incoming air, so there needs to be a “heat recovery ventilator” (HRV) installed. Sure, this equipment costs money, about the same as the heating system that you now don’t need to install. But, think of it: for the entire lifespan of the house, there will be no heating bill.

There are new insulating materials and wonderfully airtight windows available that make the Passive Home possible. They don’t have to add significantly to the cost of construction for a well-built home. The real difference is in the attention to certain details in the design and construction phase. The hard part might be in changing business-as-usual in the construction industry, by holding each segment of the industry to a higher professional standard. The results can be astounding. Think of it: NO HEATING BILL. End of story, at least, it could be. For more information, check the website http://www.passivehouse.us/ or ask your building designer about it. The future is already here.