Viridian Future 1

Aiming to be not just the most environmentally sustainable townhouse in Manhattan, but a net zero energy home.

Leadership from the Top Down

I must commend Donald Trump on his amazing use of reverse psychology. Who would have thought that the best way to get America to move forward on tackling climate change would be to withdraw from the Paris accord.

I do hope you have all seen two initiatives that have already come out of this action. The first was Michael Bloomberg announcing that the mayors of several  large American cities and some states and counties will go ahead and take steps to attain sustainability anyway, both by taking actions at a local level, and by fulfilling the U.S. commitment to help fund others to meet their goals. And then came Bill De Blasio, the mayor of New York announcing that not only will New York meet all the requirements of the accord, but will actually go further, in recognition of the fact that, whilst the accord was a major step forward, it doesnt actually go far enough to prevent global warming from escalating further.

American industry and business already know that the world is moving towards sustainability. Its a given, something that is increasingly expected by consumers and society. As nobody actually knows what Donald Trump thinks about anything, lets use the working assumption that he knows exactly what he is doing, and is leading America so that America can lead the world.

And here in my little patch, I am trying to lead. Sometimes this is by specifying what I want in this project, sometimes it is in the questions I ask suppliers and service providers, and sometimes it is in the choices I make that incur a cost that I am willing to live with.

Of Kitchens and Kings – and Queens (Apologies to Lewis Carroll)

Over recent days, I have been talking to manufacturers and suppliers of kitchens and kitchen appliances. Now this is an area in which I am hoping to use the fact that I am creating a very expensive property, in which less than 0.1% of society can afford to live (and that surely includes myself). There are many innovations, materials, and products that are being developed to be environmentally sustainable, but they are more expensive than existing options, and sometimes very much more expensive. I am seeking to use many of those products, trusting that whoever eventually lives in the house will value their environmental credentials and be willing to pay for them.

I think there are two points to make here:

·         Most innovation arrives at the top end of the market and percolates down, as the costs of production fall and the benefits of volume increase.

·         Some of the systems I wish to use do not necessarily make economic sense at this point in time. They require development and analysis, which can only be afforded when integrated into a project of this nature. Only later will their value be clear and their economic benefit become obvious. An example is the use of solar collectors to bring daylight down into the building and reduce the use of electric lights. In pure economic terms, this will never pay for itself, but the benefits for the occupants will be very real.

Its in the Materials. The Materials

One of the materials that is standard for the manufacture of kitchen cabinets is MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). This is cheap and ubiquitous. Go into any DIY chain and all the cabinetry, whether kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom, will be made of MDF. The problem is that MDF is extremely damaging both to the planet, and to the people who handle it. The adhesives that hold it together are toxic, and the fibers are carcinogenic. But it is cheap, and by the time you or others are buying a cabinet, there is no evidence of the damage done. And that ignores the problem of what to do with it once it has outlived its usefulness. Please DO Not burn it.

There are also many particle boards, sometimes called chipboard, often made from waste wood from other manufacturing processes, which might in itself seem like a sustainable process, but the boards use a lot of adhesive to hold them together. They do not release such dangerous fibers when cut, as MDF does, but their adhesives include formaldehyde, - seriously nasty stuff.

So what are the alternatives?

Well there is solid timber. Now this option is only suitable on Viridian Future when we know that the timber was harvested sustainably, processed sustainably, and treated in such a way as to make it possible to reuse/recycle it at the end of its service. There is a wonderful company in Austria, that makes kitchens of solid hardwood, grown in a forest it owns. It only cuts down 5% of the trees per year and replaces them systematically. The company even provides the customer with a certificate to show the source of the wood in their kitchen. Maybe I will raise another mortgage to have this kitchen!

Then there is a company in Italy committed to sustainability, that manufactures kitchens from a compressed board developed in Australia from post-consumer waste wood. Not only is the material sustainable, with the teeny tiniest amount of formaldehyde, but the factory has solar panels all over its roof, workshop practices, waste management, packaging, and water usage are all geared towards being sustainable. Now that is a company to do business with, if you live in Italy.

In the US, there is a particle board that uses ‘ultra-low emitting formaldehyde resin’, so we are gradually getting closer to a sustainable material, but the particles are not themselves recycled, like the boards made in Australia and Italy.

Then there is plywood. This is a stable material, made with fast growing softwood. There are plywoods on the market that use environmentally sustainable adhesives and wood that has FSC certification (Forest Stewardship Council*). By using a local manufacturer and specifying FSC plywood as the material, maybe we can also eliminate the carbon footprint of products imported from Europe. Whilst I feel proud of how Europe leads America in sustainability innovation, and am a passionate globalist when it comes to trade and politics, I recognize how it is necessary to take account of the environmental impact of international trade. Roll on the solar powered container ship!!

All of these options are much more expensive than MDF, and most people dont see that they have a choice. What I hope is that, by using these materials and supporting those who develop them, I am helping us move towards the point when, not only is the environmental option economic sense for most, but regulations have caught up, non-sustainable materials are deemed ‘ non-compliant’, and are phased out.

And who knows, maybe non-compliant lawmakers and executives will be too…

 

* For those who are interested, the Forest Stewardship Council is the only independent body set up to provide certification of the source, supply chain, and sustainability of wood. It is recognized by all those who are pushing for environmental sustainability. There are other organizations who provide certification, but they are not independent of the logging companies, so FSC is the only certification to base your purchasing decisions on

It may be slow, but it is progress

...altho at times it feels like we are going backwards, not forwards.

As someone said to me recently (admittedly somewhat tongue in cheek), we cannot any more really use the term 'glacial pace' to refer to something that changes very slowly. In our case, it seems as if nowadays the glaciers are receding faster than this project is progressing!

I shared in my last post that I had relented on the removal of the roof. Well I finally let go of the SIPs too. So we will now be removing the whole of the south wall, plus two floors of the north wall, and one section of wall facing a neighbor, all that we constructed new. With two sets of engineers saying we just couldnt be sure of reaching the standard we are aiming for, and nobody yet knowing how much the panels had deteriorated over the two years they had been exposed to the weather, it was time to accept the inevitable. Wow this has been tough. Whilst the SIPs had been the cause of the stoppage, they had been manufactured specifically for this building, at considerable expense, are a fundamentally environmentally sound building system, and many weeks of labor had gone into installing them. So now I have to find a way to dismantle them and either use, or recycle the materials they are made from. This will be a challenge to all involved, but then, this project is all about challenges.

On the other hand, the decision to demolish the basement extension, approval for which had been granted to the previous owner based on it only being used as part of the doctors surgery, has freed up so many design possibilities. And along with that, changing the roof from a pitched roof intended for solar panels, to a flat roof, gives us a huge flat roof area to use for an exterior amenity space. This also enables us to have a skylight above the staircase, which should be beautiful as well as bringing in more light.

Ironically, the delays in this project have actually given time for technological improvements that will enable us to do some things we couldnt do before. The solar capture system has improved so that we will be able to bring daylight down into more of the building, plus, we will be able to have a living wall down the staircase, bringing not just air quality improvements from living plant life, but another opportunity for use of captured rainwater. Plus there are aesthetic benefits, and even the chance to harvest salad greens directly before putting them in the salad. And solar panels get more efficient every year. I will write about the solar installation in a dedicated post later on.

There are now American manufacturers of building components that we were expecting to have to import from Europe. And amazingly, some things are actually cheaper, as the market for them is expanding. There are also new recycled materials coming on the market, and many heating/cooling related appliances are much more efficient now.

And there is the dramatic change in the provision of batteries for storage of electricity generated by the solar system, leading to much greater efficiency of use, instead of shipping it out to the grid.

Another exciting development is the attachment of solar cells to other materials, both structural ones, creating solar roof systems that dont need a roof covering underneath, and non structural but weather protective ones, like fabric, that enable amazing shapes of solar canopies.

So we have finished our design review and are in the process of appointing our new contractor. Next phase – demolition...  aahhhgg, but we have to go thru that phase to get to the constructing of the new.

So yes, this post is both about the pain and the delays, and about the hope and the opportunities. But hey, we are living in a world where Trump and Brexit are trying to take us backwards, both environmentally and cooperatively. We simply cannot afford to give up here.

 

For anybody interested:

Solar collectors - http://www.parans.com/the_product-en.cfm?id=44

Solar cells on fabric -  http://www.pvilion.com

Back on the Case

Surprise. Surprise. Here I am again, writing a post for Viridian Future One. As I wrote last time, back in April 2016, we put the house on the market in spring 2016. Well the only interested people were developers who wanted to make their profit, so we didnt get any offers sufficient to prevent us losing a great deal of money.

The next development was Lornas decision to separate. So, with no requirement for me to be in the same place as her, and a separation of our finances, I decided that this was an opportunity for me to return to New York and finish what I had started. In October 2016 I moved out of the London home, put all my possessions in storage, and set off with two suitcases to live as a gypsy until further notice.

Until such time as my visa application is approved, I am only able to be in New York on a visitors visa, which means a somewhat precarious existence. Unwilling to commit to a lease on a stable place to live, I have been shuttling between Airbnb, friends, and hotels. I hope it is all worth it in the end!

 

Having been imagining for many months that we would be selling the house, I have come back to it with a fresh perspective, and asked Irena the architect and the engineers to review the design. I have reconsidered the design criteria, with focus both on the sustainability features, and on how commercial the interior design is. Acknowledging that I will never live in the place, I accept that my design ideas (just like my dress code) make no compromise with current fashion, so maybe it is time to let go of my creative color matching and accept that the New York style is white on white, with stone and marble in various shades of gray…

One of many examples of how this project has evolved as my understanding has grown, is the removal of LEED* as a design criterion. It became clear that, certainly for domestic properties, LEED adds considerably to the construction cost, without adding so much to the sustainability of the property once people are living in it. Far more important is the energy efficiency and materials used. Thats not to say that the goals of LEED are not valuable, its just that the documentation of them is very problematic and doesnt add to the perception within purchasers of the sustainability of the place that might be their home.

I have also been persuaded that the roof, altho it was granted permission, cannot remain. The architect and team will attest to how hard I fought to keep it. This issue demonstrates one of the problems for me, of maintaining my commitment to sustainability, whilst rectifying mistakes that were made in the first phase of this project. Not only do we have the roof that has to be removed, but we have the SIPS* that, now that they cannot be considered as structural, are not as efficient an insulation as the space they occupy could be, and may need to be removed. My commitment is that nothing that we remove from the building goes in a hole in the ground. If we cannot find a way to reuse the material on site, then we have to find a way to sell them for reuse, or recycle them. I am sure it is true that few projects proceed from start to finish without mistakes. For many, that is a matter of economics, the cost of rectifying the mistake is less than that of avoiding its existence. In the case of sustainable building, we have to make sure the project remains sustainable including the rectification of mistakes.

In upcoming posts, I will share more of the dilemmas and compromises on the sustainability, plus some technological developments that will enable us to do things we couldnt do before. I will also say more on the importance and benefits of sustainable building, to us, our children, our childrens children, and the planet itself.

I might also share more of the journey this project has taken me on. Suffice to say at this moment, its like a roller coaster that not only throws you up and down and from side to side, but drags you under water and keeps you there until your lungs are bursting and then some, before flipping you upside down and flinging you out into the air and giving you only a few moments to recover before the next twist and turn.

Until next time.

 

LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

SIPS - Structural Insulated Panel System

Time To Move On

It is thirteen months since my last post. (For those of you who have forgotten what happened thirteen months ago, we learned that the construction system we were using didnt comply with New York city regulations, so we stopped work.) During that time, we appointed a new architect and parted ways with the contractor. The new design team formulated a proposal to address the areas of non compliance, and put in an amended application to the New York city building department. That was last summer. I think the city must have gone on holiday for six months. They finally granted approval on 7th March this year. An outrageous delay, and yet another sorry indictment of the bureaucracy of the city, something for which we were not prepared, and never sufficiently warned.

With Lorna already having resigned from Mondelez, we decided back in February of last year to leave the US. Lorna accepted a very exciting post as the Chief Manifesto Catalyst for Danone, the French food multinational, and we moved to Paris on 29th May. We have been out of the US for nine months, during which time I have made repeated trips back to try and deal with the project.

Even with a team of skilled, passionate, and determined professionals, the construction industry still has so little experience doing this type of building, that the design process has been tortuous to say the least. Not only that, but the cost of construction in New York went up in some places by as much as 40% during the time of our project. This was due to developers piling in with projects before the end of a tax break.

Having repeatedly received bad advice on the cost of doing this work, we found ourselves with a project that was not consistent with our finances, given the fact that we were not expecting to be living in the house once completed. We have therefore decided to sell the property as is, with the half completed shell, but with full approval to complete the construction work to both Passive House and LEED standard.

It is time for us to move on. With us living in London, and Lorna working in Paris, it is just not sense to have a major project in New York.

There are wounds to lick, lessons to integrate, and new dreams to replace old nightmares. All will take time. I felt a sense of relief when finally deciding to sell up, as it has been a strain for a long time now. I have to admit that right from the decision to appoint the first architect and contractor, I made errors of judgement. I did insufficient research on their capability. Even tho I had a dream of doing the project as sustainably as possible, I didnt know enough of the technicalities to know that the architect was out of his depth, and against Lornas better judgement, I held on longer than was healthy. We never really recovered.

I want to thank many friends and others who have said positive and encouraging words about our dream. We can only hope that others have learned lessons from our efforts, and that we have made a contribution to the progress towards sustainable building. Maybe the new owners will follow that path too. And maybe yet we will do another project that integrates some or all of what we have learned.

Wishing you all better luck with your projects.

Abel and Lorna

Web Design by Abel B'Hahn, with grateful thanks to The Story of Us | VIRIDIAN FUTURE 1 | New York, New York, USA