Viridian Future 1

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

Moving the Goal Posts Inside My Head

You may ask, 'what does he mean by that?'

We have all experienced situations in which someone has moved the goal posts even as we are aiming for the goal. Have you also experienced a situation in which, after setting out to aim for a target, you have discovered that the target you thought you wanted to aim for, wasnt what you thought it was, and, midstream, you have had to redirect yourself. Its like that for me.

As we woke this morning, Lorna asked about my night. I told her I had spent much of it thinking about thermal bridges and moving goal posts!

When we started out, we knew we wanted to aim for sustainability. We started learning about standards and approaches in the USA, and in that process, we met an architect and contractor who explained the standards in America as they understood them. So we set out to go for LEED Platinum, plus some other criteria like water recycling that we were already clear about. What we have subsequently realized, is that those of us who focus on LEED see only what LEED sees. As I have written before, we since learned that the Passive House standard from Germany is the only system capable of taking us to the maximum level of energy efficiency, a level LEED does not give much attention to.

Once we realized this, and employed some Passive House consultants, we found all the ways in which the first set of specifications were totally inadequate to the task. Having taken on responsibility for producing the construction drawings, but still with wholly insufficient experience of the building technology needed to achieve this standard, I find myself struggling with air sealing and thermal bridges. 

So now I get to the goal posts inside my head. You see, we developed a vision and a set of designs, and then a price. And we believed the set of designs met the vision. When we learned that they didnt, we had to make decisions about how far we could go to compensate. And that is the painful bit, in two ways. One, we have to accept that some of the decisions cannot be corrected. There are big pieces of steel holding things up that we cannot now move to make space for insulation. Two, we have an expectation of the available size of the rooms. If we want to fully meet the standard and achieve certification, we have to increase the insulation even further, and all our rooms get smaller.

So yet again we have to compromise. We are unlikely to reach the standard for Passive House, even tho we know that, to be as environmentally sustainable as possible, this standard is the benchmark. While we have managed to improve enormously on the first set of specifications, and we are hoping that, as is stated so many times by Passive House adherents, the money spent on the envelope is saved on the heating/cooling system, I am still struggling to come to terms with the learning, the adjustment necessary inside my head, and the decisions I myself am making that fall short of that standard.

For those of you who wanted photos, sorry. We are now watertight, and it is raining. And it is Xmas. Happy holidays to you all and may 2015 be more exciting, more satisfying, and more joyful than any year you have ever experienced.

A Story of Impotence and Frustration

But first, lets have some photos

This is the top floor and cantilevered roof, seen from the neighbors side. The front wall will have a brick facing to match the walls below, and we are designing how to integrate the roof decoratively. Seen from the street, this is very dramatic, and adds a lot of roof space for solar panels.

And of course there will be a wall down the side behind the chimney stack, it just isnt built yet.

This is the start of our roof garden looking back towards the double doors that will open out onto it from the top floor room. On the left you can see the start of the room that will house the rain water collection tank. The plan is to be able to store 1900L (500gal) and, once it is filtered and disinfected with a UV light, to use it for our domestic hot water.

This should give you an idea of the size of the roof garden.

Now to more of the story. I didnt want to send out a post earlier this week because we had so much rain and these areas were all covered in tarpaulins, with varying degrees of effectiveness, causing my heart a lot of pain. By the end of tuesday the roofs will all be water tight.

So the impotence in the title is mine, in the face of the plumbing regulations which, many people tell me, were written by the plumbing union to ensure work for plumbers. I guess, when you are a plumbers union, you would want to ensure work for plumbers, even if that work is unnecessary, wasteful, or counterproductive.

New York is the first place I have encountered that uses a whole series of pipes running in parallel to the waste pipes from the sinks, showers, toilets etc. in order to carry nothing but air, with the apparent purpose of ensuring the smell from the sewer never passes thru the traps under the sinks and toilets etc. If nobody else needs this pipe duplication, then what is so special about New York that makes this necessary. Like I said, nowhere else has the New York Plumbers Union to deal with.

So I am required to install all this unnecessary pipework, and use metal pipe to boot, that is both expensive, uses materials that could be actually doing something useful, takes up space in the shafts, and very effectively conducts heat out of the building.

You can tell from this rant, that I am enormously frustrated. Anybody who knows me knows that I abhor waste and inefficiency. I have spent hours (many of them lying in bed at night when I should have been sleeping) trying to find a way to avoid this wastage. There you have my impotence. As was spoken to me today, 'you are up against forces far stronger than you. Let go of this and use your energy to fight a winnable fight'.

Trouble is, as Lorna will attest, letting go is something I am not very good at.

Gathering Momentum

Before I get onto the subject of this post, I dont have any great photo for you this time, even tho we are all excited here that the roof is on and the fifth floor is now structurally complete. Its just that we dont have a helicopter to take the photo, and anyway, after two days sub zero last week, and 20deg (68degF) on Monday, it is now snowing heavily. Please consider the space after this paragraph as a picture from the helicopter in the snow storm.


So now onto our snowball that is gathering momentum. Less than three weeks ago we did an open day for members of the New York Passive House Group and their friends. We had over forty people, mostly architects, and the response was hugely encouraging. We have received many emails of gratitude, both for what we are doing, and for how we are sharing it.

Following the event, one attendee offered himself as an intern so he could learn more about sustainable building. We can now welcome Eser to our team. He will be with us for the next four months, helping with some of our challenges with the local building code that conflicts with sustainable building, helping with our outreach, and lending a hand when we install some of the features integral to Passive House building.

I was then asked by our Passive House consultant Oleg, if I would do a tour for someone who wasnt able to come on the open day. I took her around last week, and learned that she is the director of The Sallan Foundation, who network and spread information to bring our cities closer to being sustainable. She wrote about us and the social media response has been wonderful. Check out

So what we are finding is that, by aiming for true sustainability, despite the challenges, rather than a half way shot, we are drawing to us others who are equally passionate and willing to put in the effort. Those others are then telling people about what we are doing and the impact of our one little project is spreading and supporting progress in ways we could not have predicted.

Even if we miss the standard for certification by the Living Building Challenge, even if we dont achieve Passive house certification, our efforts and lessons will help others, and one day residential buildings thruout cities all over the world will be totally sustainable.

Successes and Slip-ups

First the success, then the slip-up.

This photo shows the fifth floor front, with windows to match the third floor, and the start of construction of the cantilevered roof, which will extend forward to the lower building line. It is already looking dramatic, and will be spectacular once completed. It both increases the available area for solar panels, and provides a unique architectural feature. I know that some will hate it and some will love it. I am firmly in the latter camp.

And as for the slip-up?

Well we had not only aimed for the Materials Petal of the Living Building Challenge, but, for our own goals, had intended that all the wood in the building would be FSC (certified by the Forest Stewardship Council), in other words, would come from sustainably managed forests. Four days ago we noticed that the stamp on the wood of the SIPs wasnt FSC, but was SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative). This standard was created by the owners of the forest products industry, rather than by a wide range of stake holders, and, whilst a tree is planted for every tree that is felled, it is a lower standard.

This obviously does not mean that the wood in our SIPS has been logged without consideration of the environmental impact,  and, due to the quantity of FSC wood in our project, it does not prevent us reaching the LEED standard (which requires a percentage to be FSC), but we missed our own standard, due to our inexperience, and that of our contractor, by not specifying that the wood be FSC.

We are saddened by this slip, and it means we are not eligible for the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal, but this is all part of the striving that this project embodies. Hopefully others will learn from our mistake and know that, even if the manufacturers website says they provide SIPs with FSC wood, they must be asked specifically to ensure this order is so fulfilled.

Meanwhile, we press ahead installing the SIPs that make up the roof, and we will soon be weather tight for the winter.

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