Category Archives: design principles

Low-Input / High-Performance is a Matter of Design

Last week I described how architect and eco-designer William McDonough worked with the Ford Motor Company starting in 1999 to redevelop the historic River Rouge manufacturing plant in Detroit. While the energy performance of the renovated million square metre facility is impressive in and of itself, what is truly remarkable is that McDonough somehow got William Clay Ford Jr. – great grandson of Henry Ford – to embrace eco-design thinking.

Of course when the win-win-win outcomes of eco-design are so easy to document it should not be difficult to convince reasonable people of its value. Here is how Ford’s charitable trust describes the company’s new outlook:

“Ford’s approach, often referred to as sustainable design, might also be described as high-performance design. A high performance building will:

– Lower annual energy costs

– Lower long-term maintenance costs

– Use non-toxic, easily recycled materials

– Create healthier work environments

– Improve employee productivity

– Improve market image

– Help protect the environment

(Source: TheHenryFord.org)

With a few tweaks to the language used in the list above, our renovated villa in Castlecliff ticks all these boxes. It provides a healthy living environment at low annual energy costs while reducing ecological impacts.

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Lounge Before

As you may recall, I often refer to this as “low-input/high-performance design,” and I apply it to both housing and food production. When people ask me what I do for a living I say, “I design low-input and high-performance systems.” Imagine the looks I get!

Maintaining warm, dry living spaces throughout winter improves the quality of life and financial security for occupants of high-performance homes, which also reduces personal stress and family tension. Research performed in New Zealand by Beacon Pathway found that families who shifted from cold, damp homes to warm, dry, low-energy homes feel better physically and emotionally. Three families interviewed had the following to say:

“Being warmer has made us happier: we were on edge before, and cold. It was a nightmare. This has taken a weight off us.”

“We are happy here, which flows through everything else. Everything has been better since being here.”

“No one has been sick since arriving in the house and we no longer needed our asthma inhalers.”

Those are powerful testimonials, and ironically the opposite of what my family experienced this winter shifting from our warm, dry, low-energy villa to a cold, damp, draughty bungalow. While a change in my employment status (removing the ‘un’) prompted the move, the July timing could not have been worse. Fortunately we had plenty of firewood to get us through until I am able to make the types of improvements that made our villa so cosy.

Drawing on research from Beacon Pathway, BRANZ, EECA, and other housing research organisations, Auckland Council developed a ‘Theory of Change’ document for its Retrofit Your Home programme. The expected outcomes of the programme include:

– Financial savings from decreased electricity consumption

– Improved quality of life and life expectancy

– Increased feeling of satisfaction with living situation

– Improved relationships within the family

– Increased educational achievement

These win-win-win outcomes are clear enough to the largest council in the nation to drive its support for improving the quality of housing for residents. But for some unknown reason, the push for warm, dry, healthy homes struggles to get traction in New Zealand as a whole. I speak with native Kiwis and immigrants all the time about this issue, and to me it is all just a broken record playing over and over again: “there needs to be a major shift in attitudes about housing in this country.”

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Lounge After

For me, the bottom line is quality of life. Our cosy Castlecliff villa provided us with an amazing quality of life for three and a half years and once our new home is improved it will do the same. I feel sorry for the millions of Kiwis living in sub-standard housing and suffering from poor health and emotional strain. But at the end of the day it is up to each one of us to stand up and say, “I am going to improve the living conditions of my family.”

 

Peace, Estwing

Eco-Design Saved “The Rouge”

Editor’s Note: This is a regular column that appears in our city’s newspaper, The Wanganui Chronicle.

 

I always get a kick out of walking down Victoria Avenue or riding my bike on Puriri Street and seeing someone wearing a basketball jersey of the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers. I picture in my mind the reverse: youths in Boston and Los Angeles sporting their Warriors or Crusaders kit. It is good for a chuckle.

I am especially impressed on the rare occasion of passing someone on the streets of our River City supporting my hometown Detroit Pistons. So you will understand my pleasure upon opening last Saturday’s Chronicle to find a full-page story on the Motor City.

Appropriately placed at the top of the page was a photograph of a group of students sitting in front of a massive Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember all those decades ago taking a school trip to the DIA and being completely overwhelmed by the Rivera murals that depict the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge manufacturing plant at the time of their painting in the early 1930s. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.14.57 AM

 On the 2,000 acre site, 93 buildings covered 1.5 million square metres and had 150 kilometres of conveyors. Iron ore went in one end and finished cars came out the other. 100,000 men worked at the plant while Rivera painted his murals. “The Rouge” had a fully staffed hospital, a fire department and a police force. It was the largest single industrial complex in the world.

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By the time I visited the DIA in the late 1970s the Rouge itself was on hard times. The work force had plummeted to under 10,000 and drug use was rampant among them. The quality of Ford vehicles had declines and Japanese imports were in the ascendant. My family was unlucky enough to have purchased a Ford Pinto that was plagued with mechanical problems.

By the early 1990s the plant was on the brink of closure. And then something amazing happened: Eco-design saved the Rouge.

In 1999, Architect William McDonough (the subject of last week’s column) entered into an agreement with Ford Motor Company for a major eco-thrifty renovation of the aged facility. The cornerstone of the renovation was a 10-acre (four hectare) living roof planted mostly to low-growing sedum, which retains and cleans rainwater while buffering the temperature inside the plant in both winter and summer. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.19.22 AM

While the living roof saves Ford on both heating and cooling costs, the major savings were realized by the role it plays as part of an $18 million storm water system designed to handle 76 million cubic metres of water annually. This innovative system also includes a series of swales, reconstructed wetlands, the world’s largest porous parking lot, and hundreds of newly planted trees.

From day one, this eco-design option for treating rainwater saved Ford $32 million because the mainstream option of mechanical treatment would have cost $50 million.

Another role that re-vegetation efforts play on the site is through phytoremediation – a process by which plants and soil microbes break down contaminants and render them harmless. This approach is much cheaper than the other option Ford was facing of trucking contaminated soils off to landfill. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.22.07 AM

Finally, McDonough has worked with Ford to improve the natural day lighting, ventilation, and energy efficiency of the plant while saving them even more money. This from TheHenryFord.org:

“Ford’s approach, often referred to as sustainable design, might also be described as high-performance design. A high performance building will:

– Lower annual energy costs

– Lower long-term maintenance costs

– Use non-toxic, easily recycled materials

– Create healthier work environments

– Improve employee productivity

– Attract talented recruits

– Improve market image

– Help protect the environment

“The Rouge is not only being rebuilt, it’s being re-imagined as a model of sustainable manufacturing – a workplace that helps protect the environment for future generations while it inspires a new paradigm.”

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To me this is inspiring stuff, and I can see its application throughout our city. As yet we have not been able to get into gear, but here’s hoping one day these types of ideas will get traction and with the engagement of a broad cross-section of our community we can get the pistons humming.

 

Peace, Estwing

Complimentary Design

Here we are in the middle of winter and it’s music trivia time again. If you are under 30, you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Released in 1972, this song was the first and only number one on both the soul singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts for singer songwriter Bill Withers. In 1987, Club Nouveau covered the song and took it back to number one for two weeks on the Billboard charts. That version reached number one in New Zealand in 1987, and earned Withers a belated Grammy award, as a writer, for Best R&B Song. It is ranked number 205 on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

This music trivia question was brought to you by Wikipedia. Any guesses?

The song: Lean on Me.

The moral: We all have our good days and bad days.

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The same goes for passive solar homes, especially on cloudy winter days. But there is a silver lining when eco-design is involved. Here is what I mean.

Central to eco-design is working with nature instead of against it. Aside from those people and organizations who prefer wasting money and increasing pollution, we all understand this.

Part of working with nature is understanding the patterns in nature. With regards to a passive solar home, this means sun angles: morning, noon and night; summer, autumn, winter, spring.

It also includes an understanding of winter weather patterns. For example, most sunny winter days are followed by clear, cold nights. On the other hand, most cloudy winter days are followed by warmer nights because the cloud cover holds the warmer daytime air against the earth.

The passive solar design of our home takes into account both of these two conditions in order to keep our power bill as low as possible. On fine winter days the sun warms our home to a comfortable 24 degrees, it heats our water, and cooks our dinner on the solar cooker outside on the patio.

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On overcast winter days we can light a fire in the cookstove if needed, which then heats our home and cooks our meals. Wood, after all, is just sunshine one step removed.

In both cases, the result is a warm home and a hot meal without the need to use any electrical power. This can be considered a complimentary design strategy: when one element of the system is lacking another element in the system steps in to help out.

Lean on me when you’re not strong

I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on

For it won’t be long

‘Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

It will not come as a surprise that most great teams like the All Blacks design their game plans to take into account the complimentary skills of each player, and to adjust the game plan to take advantage of those players who are performing at their best during any particular contest while others may turn in sub-par performances.

But then again, every Achilles has his heel. In our present home there are days – one or two each month during May, June and July, that we run our of solar hot water and have to turn on the electric element for 20 or 30 minutes in order to take showers. This boosts our monthly power bill from its usual $22 all the way up to $25.

This minor expense of about $10 per year does not justify the cost of connecting a wetback to our wood burner, which would run into the thousands of dollars. In other words, the payback period for a wetback would be many decades while the payback for our solar hot water will be somewhere around 6 years.

However, when we shift homes next week we will be facing a different set of circumstances where the installation of a wetback may be justified. Time, and eco-design, will tell.

Peace, Estwing

 

p.s. How many TV satellite dishes do you see in the title image and how many solar water heaters?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Materials and Energy

In 1982, when I was 14 years old, Aretha Franklin moved into my neighbourhood. She had come back to Detroit to assist with the care of her ailing father who ultimately died two years later.

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Like all things great and glorious, Franklin experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 1980’s following an amazing cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers (1980). She was inducted as the first female performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

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What does any of this have to do with eco-design?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.

From my perspective, good eco-design is about maintaining a high level of respect for energy and materials. The reason that good eco-design is so rare in New Zealand housing, I suspect, is that most homes were built at a time when energy, wood, steel, concrete and glass were inexpensive.

When things have a low monetary value placed on them, human beings tend to respect them less than when things hold high monetary value. This can partially explain the abundance of poorly designed dwellings across the country and throughout Whanganui.

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Maintaining respect for energy and materials when they are universally cheap is difficult. We can think of some idealistic hippies and back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, but few of them were able to carry on through the cultural and consumer shifts during the 1980s and 1990s. They can be forgiven.

More recently, the costs of energy and building materials have been increasing faster than wage rises for over a decade, with a particular jump in petrol prices since 2008. By now it should be common knowledge that power has doubled in price over the last 10 years, and mathematicians may suggest it is likely to double again in another decade.

From a purely fiscal perspective, we might see more eco-design creeping into the home building and renovation industry in two ways: smaller homes that require fewer materials to build and less energy to operate; well-designed ‘passive’ homes where the building materials are arranged in such a way as to result in very low energy use dwellings.

 Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 8.28.48 AM

Our renovation may be considered a passive solar retrofit because we took a big old cold villa and transformed it into a warm, dry home heated almost entirely by the sun. The term passive implies that our home simply sits there taking in solar energy like a parked car or sunbather.

Converting a bog standard villa to passive solar requires three basic elements: more glazing that faces the equator than the nearer pole; thermal mass (ie, heavy stuff) inside of the building envelope that absorbs warmth during the day and emits it at night; and, insulation that reduces the rate at which heat escapes the building envelope. Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 8.29.13 AM

We add draught-proofing to these three design elements, but the bottom line is that plugging draughts is just plane common sense and one of the cheapest things anyone can do to keep the warmth in and the cold out. Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 8.29.24 AM

Over the next four weeks I’ll write in detail about these passive solar design strategies and how we applied them during our renovation. ‘Cause that’s what R-E-S-P-E-C-T means to me.

Peace, Estwing

Beach as Eco-Thrifty Design Exercise

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When I first wrote in October about what appeared to be the needless waste of rates “grooming” Castlecliff Beach it was in response to a comical situation: moving sand to windward with heavy equipment only to have it blown back into place within weeks.

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Then it happened again and again. Weeks after a second massive effort pushing hundreds of tons of sand to windward, it was all back in place, and an excavator was moving it a third time while damaging the car park in the process.

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When the first piece ran, the editor of the Chronicle gave it a title something along the lines of “Fighting Nature is Expensive.”

Eco-design has shown millions of times that working with nature is almost always cheaper in the long run. With this in mind, my suggestion was to take an eco-design approach to downsize the massive and underused car parks, which would save us all money and release less pollution through diesel fumes. I used the phrase ‘managed retreat’ because I had heard it used in reference to parts of the flood zone, and that it suits what would probably be a carefully considered, staged programme of right-sizing and retreat.

What I saw as a common sense win-win situation has made me the target of a few individuals who appear desperate to keep the beach as it is. I think we’d all admit that change can seem difficult, and these people are probably afraid of changes to our beach so they lash out at anyone suggesting new ideas. I can assure them that my vision is for a better beach attracting more visitors at less expense.

Living in a democracy, we all have the right to express our opinions on how our rates are spent. Elected officials choose to listen or not.

In key ways, the context of Castlecliff Beach is similar to the context of our villa when we bought it: big, draughty, expensive to maintain. As such, we can use the beach as a thought exercise in eco-thrifty renovation.

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Form follows function: Although the area groomed appears larger than the infield at Cook’s Gardens, well over 90% of beach goers congregate only around the swimming area, which is usually about the size of a church hall. As such, why spend thousands of dollars grooming a large area of black sand into the Gobi Desert when the swimming area looks like Omaha Beach on D-Day? In terms of customer service, this arrangement falls apart: the dollars are not spent on what beach goers actually use.

Right-Sizing: Along those lines, the parking areas at the beach are oversized and underused. It reminds me of a birthday party I once attended where the host prepared massive amounts of food and drink and almost nobody came. I left feeling sad.

Again, comically (why does this term keep reappearing?!?) Council recently spent thousands of dollars resurfacing the least used of six distinct parking areas. I liken it to having your least worn of six suits dry-cleaned: fine if you have the money, but probably not if you’re on a budget.

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As the first diagram shows, most money is being spent on places where no one goes, creating the look of big, empty, uninviting expanse.

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I suspect our mayor, who has an awesome stall at the River Traders Market, will tell you that to attract people, the front of a stall must appear full of goods – giving a look of abundance, not scarcity.

By right-sizing the car parks and beach, we can have a more inviting, less costly venue for free recreation. The second diagram shows what a beach might look like when money is spent where people go instead of where they don’t go.

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I will leave the next stage of retreat to the experts, some of whom may even live in our community.

The Bottom Line: We are facing a situation where more frequent extreme weather events are pushing more sand around at the same time we have a large debt, and an inequitable and unsustainable rates structure. The practice of beach grooming will end one day. The question is: Do we continue to throw good money after bad, or do we invest in a more sustainable re-design that will save money while working with nature?

Here is a suggestion to my editor for the title of this piece: “Sustaining the Unsustainable.”

Citizenship Day (?!?)

I discovered this week on my Yankee Magazine calendar (thanks mum) that the 17th of September is Citizenship Day. There was no further clarification as to whether this citizenship extends beyond New England, or the USA, but I will assume that this is a global event. And so I’ll write about being a global citizen.
When thinking about what it means to be a global citizen, I submit that the permaculture ethics are a good place to start: earth care, people care, fair share. As a matter of fact, that may even be a good place to end. Through this lens, let’s look at an example of poor citizenship.
This data comes from a recent article in Forbes: Wasting Away: Our Garbage by the Numbers. One of the saddest bits about this is that I recall numbers like this when I started my career as an environmental educator 20 years ago. But back then the amount of garbage the average American produced was “only” 4 pounds. It is interesting that the current number is 4.4 pounds, because that is 2 kilograms. I have not seen the number for New Zealand, but I suspect it would be similar.
The three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) are so fundamental that I won’t write extensively on them except to say that global citizens would take them into account with every purchasing decision they make. During our renovation and in our domestic life we produce next to no rubbish: about one bag every two months.
I’d like to challenge global citizens to raise the bar for global citizenship beyond the 3 Rs by taking serious steps at energy conservation. We have had great success with our passive solar redesign and are using less than 10% of the electricity of even what is considered a “low user” (8000 kWh/year) in New Zealand.
This is the power bill that came this morning, after a month that included the coldest week in New Zealand recorded history. During this record cold spell, with no supplemental heating except electric, we averaged just over 2 kWh per day.
Even a “low user” can average over 21 kWh per day year round. Presumably, that may vary from 15 kWh per day in summer and 25 kWh per day in winter. By comparison, our 2 kWh appears to fall into the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. But its true. You can see the bill above. That is the power of sunlight, thermal mass and insulation.
Indoor/Outdoor Temperatures in C and F at 6 pm, Sept. 4th.
Indoor/Outdoor Temperatures in C and F at 6:30 pm, Sept. 6th.
And we’re not even done insulating and draft-proofing yet.
Global citizens who are concerned about drought in East Africa, flooding in Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly “East Pakistan”), and rising sea level in Tuvalu should feel an obligation to cut their energy use even if much of it comes from renewables like here in NZ. Even renewables have “side effects.”
Our friends in Raglan are fighting the wind mills proposed for the coastline to the north. I’ll be there a week from today helping them start that fight from home one kWh at a time.
Peace, Estwing

4 Dimensional Design: Multiple Functions

Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of multi-tasking. In this busy, busy world, it seems to becoming more and more prevalent. While I am not an advocate of texting while driving, I do see merit in being efficient with one’s time, as long as efficiency goes hand-in-glove with effectiveness. William McDonough and Michael Braungart do a good job of explaining the difference between what they call eco-efficient and eco-effective. Their book, Cradle to Cradle, is highly recommended.



I won’t try to improve on their excellent insights, but I would like to give an example of efficient/effective 4 dimensional permaculture design in action. (For those who have forgotten, TIME is the 4th dimension.) This is one of many 4 dimensional designs interacting on our property, but it illustrates the concept well.

Snails love overnighting within the agapanthus but because the caycuya grass has overgrown it is difficult and time-consuming to find them to feed to the ducklings. In this sense, the caycuya is seen as a ‘liability’ because it makes the process less efficient. Further down the page you’ll see how we turn it into an ‘asset’.

Agapanthus overrun by cacuya grass.

Now we could give our ducklings free range to find the snails themselves, but we have dogs in the neighborhood and no fencing out the front. So for the time-being we are offering escargot delivery services.

Escar-to go

Gardeners and physicists know that the process of squatting down and then standing up takes lots of energy. Part of being a lazy gardener (explained in a future post) is designing strategies that don’t require squatting down, and the other part is doing as much work as possible while your squatting before you stand up. With this in mind, as long as we’re squatting down to hunt for snails we might as well pull all of the caycuya we can comfortably reach. The large snails are placed in a pail and the grass is piled beside it. (The small snails are set free to be harvested another day.)

Waste = Food

When 12 to 15 snails have been harvested and all the caycuya within reach has been pulled, the job is done. until the nesting feeding time. The snails – liability to our gardens – are turned in an asset as duck food. The caycuya – also a liability to our gardens – is turned into an asset as a carbon neutral, hand-harvested, organic mulch. As a matter of fact, caycuya can be transformed from a liability to an asset within milliseconds and millimeters.

John the intern hard at work his very first day.

This is efficient/effective design because the snails are harvested on an as-needed basis. They stay fresh and grow best where they are. Why over-harvest and have to store them in a container?

The multi-tasking while squatting makes efficient use of the human component of the system. Since the caycuya poses no immediate threat, the job can be spread over a week or more taking only 5 minutes at a time.

And in the end, we’ll have free food for our hungry trio, free eco-mulch for our garden, a tidier front section, and the stage is set for quick and easy snail harvest the next time around.

Grow little snail, grow!

From a permaculture perspective, this illustrates the principle that every element of a system should serve multiple purposes. In 4 dimensional design, that element is the act of squatting down. As explained above, that single action serves multiple functions.

In my opinion, 4 dimensional design is not well understood or embraced by many permaculturists. It is something small that can make a big difference in a world of rising energy and food prices. What do you reckon?

Peace, Estwing