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A few older friends have passed on recently, and it has made me reflect on the fact that most of us have hopes, dreams or plans that we want to find time for “someday.” Taking a particular trip, shifting careers, perhaps writing a book; hopefully, we don’t suddenly realize that the end is near and that someday never arrived.
When I was young, the adults in my world were fond of telling children that we didn’t know how lucky we were. They would then describe the struggles they faced growing up during the Great Depression and two world wars. I suppose I did feel fortunate, but as a lifelong storyteller, I also wondered if I would ever live during important events.
This changed significantly and increasingly since the early 2000s when I began learning from scientists and engineers about the intensification of climate change and how to slow it down. Today’s extreme glacier melting, fires, storms, droughts and pandemics are historic events. And many more are reported daily.
The reality is that none of my storyteller’s hyperbole is needed to increase the drama of what we are facing: massive planetary climate upheaval and an unprecedented global effort to mitigate it through fundamental changes. In fact, it’s the complete technical and economic reinvention of the world’s biggest industries: energy, transportation and construction. It’s a gut rehab of the entire economy.
The readers of this publication are not likely to only witness a world that changes everything. Over the next decade or two, we will be hands-on and active as part of those changes. Your someday is here if it involves making history. The people on this planet right now have a huge responsibility. If we succeed in preventing planetary collapse, our kids may say to their children, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
We all know buildings are quickly going green, but with a five-year cycle for building code changes, it’s still too slow. Furthermore, it could take until 2030 before better new buildings make a real impact on emissions, and even if every new building was green, we only replace them at a rate of 2% to 4% per year.
To meet decarbonization deadlines such as 2030 and 2040, we need to work on retrofits immediately.
Green retrofits are a bigger challenge by the numbers, and they also pack a bigger punch. Even if a structure is so outdated that it would normally be leveled, its materials contain embedded carbon and may also be worth money.
A 50-year-old government seniors building in Ontario was recently retrofitted despite “needing everything.” But the skeleton was structurally sound, and project leaders said they saved more than $11 million, about half its value.
As we reported here around a year ago, the Rocky Mountain Institute says about 70 million buildings in the United States burn fossil fuels for heating and cooking. We need to renovate about 5 million buildings per year. If we had the time, capital and willingness to give them all Passive House-style envelopes and emission-free heat pump systems, that would make a huge impact.
It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s an ideal that we should continue working toward.
Connecticut’s Hotel Marcel
I wrote briefly about this 165-room hotel renovation in New Haven last year. Hotel Marcel has recently been completed; more details and results are now available. It is an excellent example of a retrofit that salvages an interesting historic structure and adds all the greenest systems while maintaining profitability.
“We are beating projections this month,” says architect and hotel owner Bruce Becker of Becker + Becker Associates. “And that’s encouraging because the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for hotels. It seems as if the business is coming back and we are selling out on weekends. Online visits are high on hotelmarcel.com.”
A couple of miles from Yale University, the former Pirelli (tire) Building was designed in 1967 in the Brutalist style by architect Marcel Breuer. Furniture retailer IKEA operates a warehouse next door and bought the building in 2003 but never used it. In 2018, the city granted permission to repurpose the structure, and Becker acquired it.
“I’m an architect who became a developer because I couldn’t find clients who want to do the cool things I want to do,” he notes.
He gutted the nine-floor, 111,000-square-foot building and refurbished it as a highly fashionable modern hotel and conference facility, selected by the American Institute of Architects for one of its events in October. The new design is for LEED Platinum and Passive House certification.
One zone is heated and cooled using energy recovery ventilation and a Mitsubishi variable refrigerant flow (VRF) system for the laundry, commercial kitchen, common areas and guest rooms from the ground to the fourth floor. A second VRF handles the second zone, from the fifth to the ninth-floor guest rooms and the top-floor conference center.
Mitsubishi’s commercial-scale Heat20 water heating systems are also installed and are suitable for buildings of all sizes, run on CO2 refrigerant, operate effectively when outdoor temperatures drop to -13 F, create hot water at 176 F and have a global warming potential rating of 1.
“It used to be that you needed gas for kitchens and domestic hot water, but that is not true today,” Becker explains. For the kitchen, induction ranges with recirculating hoods were installed. Heat pump water heaters provide hot water.
Windows were replaced with Klar triple-glazing that achieves U-values as low as 0.7 W/m2K, among the lowest on the market and more than four times better than conventional windows. A combination of closed-cell foam, open-cell foam, aerogel tape, aerogel blankets and Passive House attention-to-vapor-barrier-detail were applied to the walls.
“The only comfort issues we’ve had relate to controls, which we are still tweaking as we commission the system,” he says. The Energy Use Intensity (EUI) rating for Hotel Marcel is around 34 kBTU/ft2, which is 80% less energy than the median EUI for hotels in the United States.
“Hotels are usually energy-demanding buildings, but the Passive House envelope changes the picture dramatically,” he says, adding that about 1,100 solar panels on the roof and carports provide all the electricity on a sunny day and most of it on winter days. “We are now adding a 1 megawatt/hour battery, which will store the extra and keep us at net zero for the year.”
During our interview in November, Becker also organized the activation of 12 Tesla and 12 other electric vehicle chargers in the parking lot.
“Our climate is out of balance; much of the damage is from buildings and transportation,” he explains. “In America today, 8% of new cars sold are electric. We have a 165-room hotel, so 10 or more EVs may be parked overnight. We provide the support they need to get on their way every morning, and we also hope the chargers will help grow our restaurant business.”
Becker notes that the solar and mechanical systems have a higher rate of return than the project as a whole (including demolitions, envelope improvements, etc.) Additionally, with energy costs that keep rising quickly, modern green systems are being significantly valued by appraisers. So, from a financier’s point of view, zero-carbon systems provide a far better business case than fossil-fuel systems.
Becker says: “If the building design on your computer today has fossil fuels in it, you should turn off your computer, educate yourself, then turn it back on and design an electrified project. I think one day soon, engineers will be held liable for climate damage. Trace systems can now identify where carbon is coming from. People who are not embracing electrification will be held accountable.”
Heat Pumps in Frigid Minneapolis
Some think heat pumps are new and don’t work in cold temperatures. However, they’re not new. About
190 million heat pumps are installed across the globe, and U.S. sales are now about the same as gas furnace sales. The latter is declining, and heat pump sales are taking off, both here and around the world, in warm climates and in cold places.
Back in 2012, some Minneapolis homeowners decided to nearly double the size of their home, adding three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a more open kitchen, a living and dining space and other rooms. In the process, they cut their energy consumption by 70% by designing and insulating according to Passive House standards.
They installed a mini-split heat pump and heat recovery ventilator (HRV), but they retained a gas boiler for domestic hot water and continued its work with an existing in-floor hydronic heating system. The role of the gas boiler for space heating was soon minuscule, even with very cold outdoor temperatures.
“The mini-split was actually more important, not for heat but for cooling because, with Passive House, there is a lot of heat gain; the upper floor of the house can turn into an oven,” says architectural engineer Tim Eian of TE Studio in Minneapolis, who helped plan the renovation. “The mini-split keeps that top floor at a very comfortable 70 degrees.”
“We installed an HRV called a Paul Novus S300,” he explains. “It is a great product but is quite rare because the company was bought by Zehnder. It’s a durable ventilator that uses almost no electricity. The HRV is still going strong, providing fresh air all day long. The client is now adding another small Passive House building on the property.”
Working from Home
The Minneapolis renovation included space for home-schooling children, so indoor air quality (IAQ) was a consideration. IAQ is improved in super-insulated, mostly electrified or fully electrified homes with HRVs. Eian also lives in a Minneapolis Passive House. He and his wife both work at home and have solar on their roof and a plug-in hybrid electric car in their heated garage.
“We have almost no utility bill,” Eian notes. “Some months we pay a bit, some months we get a credit back. We’ve been net-positive energy for three years. The value of a properly built home is incredible. And that is one thing that has changed for the better. Ten years ago, Passive House was worth nothing to appraisers, but now it’s the most valuable characteristic. Appraisers have woken up.”
He explains that more professionals in the construction industry should be aware of the transformation going on in the way buildings are valued and talks about the Appraisal Institute in Chicago. Changes were introduced as far back as 2014, and by 2016, the institute had created a Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum (RGEAA) appraisal process to properly value properties on the basis of energy efficiency. Commercial property appraisal tools have since been added.
The Appraisal Institute formed partnerships with RESNET, Home Innovation Research Labs and Pivotal Energy Systems to develop new data points and to auto-populate the RGEAA with information from HERS reports.
By April of the same year, Fannie May recognized some of this work and announced HomeStyle Energy mortgages (http://bit.ly/3jtn6lb). They allow borrowers to finance energy-efficient upgrades when purchasing or refinancing a home and eliminate the need for a subordinate lien, a home equity line of credit, a Property Assessed Clean Energy loan or an unsecured loan.
California, Massachusetts and New York
About 70 counties and cities in California have adopted local ordinances for all-electric new construction in their jurisdictions and, in October 2022, regulators for the state itself voted unanimously for a ban on gas heat and water heat in new and existing buildings beginning in 2030.
A year ago, Massachusetts announced the development of a new opt-in stretch code for forward-looking municipalities that demanded it from the governor to require higher-performing buildings. It paves the way for other states to confidently adopt more efficient base building codes in future cycles.
Around the same time, New York City banned gas heat and cooking for new buildings of at least 25,000 square feet under seven stories by the end of 2023 and structures more than seven stories by 2027. This followed the earlier passage of laws that require steep emissions cuts to existing buildings, with milestones at the beginning of 2024 and 2030.
Previously, we reported on retrofits by architect Chris Benedict to Casa Pasiva, a group of nine multifamily buildings that provide affordable housing in Brooklyn. That project is now wrapping up, and the kinks have been worked out for a model of super-insulation and heat pump installs, with tenants mostly remaining in place. Benedict is now moving on to several other similar New York City projects.
In the suburbs and rural parts of New York State, ground-source heat pumps are becoming as common as air-source heat pumps. Dandelion Energy has completed more than 1,000 geothermal retrofits and was beginning new projects in Connecticut and Massachusetts early in 2022. In November, it announced the closure of a $70 million investment round that will help it continue its expansion.
The company says that adopting its geothermal system will reduce a household’s energy expenses by 47% each year, and will increase resale value by up to 7.1%. In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act provides tax credits of up to 30%, plus up-front rebates. Incentive levels are geared toward income.
I guess someday is here. We can now make history by helping retrofit endless buildings with systems that allow our kids and ourselves to breathe cleaner air, save money on energy and taxes and increase the value of our buildings. We don’t know how lucky we are.