Posts Tagged ‘Insulation’

Anyone who has worked in preservation eventually gets a little bit tired of seeing the insides of old, restored Victorians (admit it), and good lord, once you’ve seen a dozen green buildings, you’re pretty much over the typically installed measures and upgrades. But occasionally, I still get to be surprised–the tour I went on today was astonishing, and showed how preservation and efficiency are important because they simply make way more sense than the alternative. I’m sure I’m leaving so much out from the tour, so by all means, add or correct me after this has posted.

The Plant, located at 1400 W. 46th Street in Chicago at the Stockyards.

The 93,000 sf warehouse, now called The Plant, is so unbelievably innovative that I won’t pretend to fully understand everything that I’m going to mention. The Plant describes itself as “a project combining adaptive industrial reuse and aquaponics to create Chicago’s first vertical farm.” While “aquaponics” and “vertical farm” seem innovative enough, there is so much more to this place. The ultimate goal of The Plant is, according to it’s developer, “to create sustainable food and energy systems in urban areas that can be reproduced at a grass roots level by others with few resources,” and that is accomplished through the cooperation of many entities and ideas.

This is how I was greeted at 11 a.m., as if I wasn't already happy to be there. They don't do this on SOM tours.

The building was sold for the scrap value by the time it was purchased this summer by John Edel, the owner and developer of this project. Edel also recently converted a burned-out 24,000 sf warehouse in Bridgeport into the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, proving his point that “no building is too derelict to be sustainably renovated and made productive again. It doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of money, just creativity.” BOOYAH. His new project could likely be an excellent and unprescedented model for other cities and depressed areas around the country like Detroit, and could finally help keep big box stores out with the work space and food it creates. And yes, it’s a former meat plant, and yes, it still smells meaty (they are cleaning it) and has cage rails on the ceilings that pigs would swing from. And yes, meat plants apparently make for damned good garden spaces, but I’ll explain that later.

Mushroom columns hold the weight for organic farming--fitting, no? Note if you can the floor drainage here from the meat packing plant. The floor pavers are durable and dip down to drains in the center of the floor. This drainage would have been astronomically expensive to put in for urban farming. Fortunately, it was already here and in tact!

How the space will be used:

-Energy-efficient brewery (the idea is to be even more efficient than Fat Tire)


-Community (“shared use”) kitchen, which apparently there is a dire need for. For more on issues with this in the city, please see a Chicago Reader article and extremely sad Chicago Tribune article and video.

-Conference rooms and offices

-Nonprofit farm

-Research offices to test effectiveness of hydroponics, vertical farming, condensers, etc. so that The Plant can be an effective and tested model and help other communities to do this work

-Rentable office space (that can sometimes be bartered for when times are tough)

-Some retail space

Visionary and developer John Edel explaining the meat cage rails that still exist--and will be preserved--in a future conference room and office space.

So all of this is really great, of course, but it gets so much better, folks. These are all noble ideas, but the expense of heating and cooling a 93,000 sf facility with all of these plants and processes would be insane…well, it would if you weren’t terrifically smart like Edel and friends.

Because this was still used for meat production up until four years ago, lots of coolers and stainless steel remains for these new projects, cutting costs considerably.

How The Plant closes the energy loop:

-Everything in the building is being salvaged, with the exception of some plastic walls that were put in and are unrecyclable. Everything.

-Windows are being replaced with triple-pane windows that are produced locally. I know, I hate window replacement, too, but these are mostly just glass block at this point and painted or boarded over. This is bringing in local business and actually will be a huge improvement in this case.

-Floor drainage for vertical gardening would normally be insanely expensive to put in, but existing drainage from the meat plant (don’t think about it too much) will take care of all that and is in great condition

-The building is already extremely well insulated because 70% of it was used as a cooler for the meat. I know, right?

-Tens of thousands of dollars in plumbing equipment was left inside the building when John bought it. And this is a building that has some pretty intense plumbing needs.

-Before the last company moved out, they updated all of the electrical wiring, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades

-There will be an anaerobic digester, which will make biogas, which will feed the turbines, which will provide waste heat that will help heat the building. I hope I got that right, and it obviously deserves more attention than this bullet point.

-All electricity will be generated on site, so there will be no transmission loses. Vertical garden plans are often thwarted by electricity needs, so that problem is solved.

Fish breading and aquaponics will create fish waste, which is primarily comprised of ammonia, and use it to feed the plants. The plants then filter that same water so that it can return to the fish tanks.

-An 8,000 sf greenhouse and small orchard will be installed on the rooftop

Donated containers--I believe from a bakery--will become tanks for thousands of fish.

I’m sure I’ve missed a million other ways of closing the energy loop within the building, but the bottom line is that if we want successful, green adaptive reuse projects, we need to find buildings that already have systems built into them that help serve the purposes of the new use(s). Buying a giant warehouse and completely gutting it to the brick shell just isn’t that impressive, green, historic, or cost-effective. Seriously. We all know this intuitively, but as preservationists, we are accustomed to taking what we can get. Being creative with what already exists is so much more effective and rewarding. And involving the community and providing organic produce, work spaces, educational opportunities and more is essential to the success of reuse projects, especially those in areas that have very few places to eat, shop, and work. That’s why we keep seeing the Big Box of Despair going up in depressed areas, knocking out all independent thinking, lowering wages, and destroying the remaining ma and pa businesses that give neighborhoods character. I hate you, Walmart. But I kind of like to think that if humans join forces with plants and fish, we may create a large enough army to beat you, not unlike a Tolkien novel where the good always prevail in the end.

The rooftop, which will eventually house 8,000 sf of greenhouse space.


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New Orleans crew April 2010. We are working on four houses this week--this is the house my group is insulating. And don't worry, it will also be restored to its raised double shotgun former glory.

So I’m back in New Orleans this week doing another restoration project in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower 9th. My first day back I spent insulating a home, which was awesome for three reasons: 1) I’ve never done this kind of insulating; 2) The future owners will have a more efficient home, 3) Nobody insulates their buildings in New Orleans. We also took a tour of the Global Green Homes springing up in Holy Cross, which feature solar panels, reflective roofs, low VOC paints and adhesives, geothermal heating and cooling systems (well, one of them does), Energy Star appliances, etc., etc. They are generally going for around $200,000, which seems pretty darned cheap, though they are actually a little pricey for residents who lived in the area pre-Katrina. It’s a tough balance.

I also notice a new trend here–green boutique shops. Despite the Make It Right homes (Brad Pitt’s project in the Lower 9th) and other green building programs that have sprung up in the hardest hit areas and gotten a lot of media hype, New Orleans is just not a very environmentally-conscious city in many ways. Well, save the fact that preservation is King here, which perhaps makes it more environmentally-friendly than anyone gives it props for. I’d love to see that data. At any rate, it’s cool to see that a more conscious and active awareness is growing!

One of several stores along Magazine Street that boasts eco-friendly products.

True dat!

People FIX things here instead of just demolishing them. Buildings are a labor of love and constantly being restored and kept up. The image above is a law office that is replacing some of the wood sideboards. After this, they will likely throw on a couple coats of paint and use the building for another 120 years.

Urban chickens in the back yard of our benevolent landlords' house

Green guard between old joists. We cut strips of insulation, glued them to the wood clapboarding as furring strips, then put the boards over them and sealed them with foam. This allows the walls to breath, reducing potential moisture and mold issues.

A few of the Global Green homes recently built in Holy Cross.

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I stumbled upon an article yesterday in New Scientist that describes how homes made to be more energy efficient are making homeowners complacent–it appears that many people are using just as much energy as they were before they made their homes more efficient. For example, some homeowners tend to crank the heat up more than they did pre-retrofit because they no longer have to worry about bills being as high as they would have been in the past. If a homeowner is used to paying $200 to keep their house at 65 degrees, they might not mind paying $200 to keep their home at 75 degrees where they can walk around in their favorite old Earth Day t-shirt and hemp boxers in the middle of January.

Why yes, this is indeed a rather handsome $5,000 high efficiency boiler! However, if you use it to create a jungle-like climate in your super insulated home, you're not doing yourself or the planet any favors.

While the article focused on a survey done in the UK, there is no doubt that the same thing is happening in the US—I’ve seen it and felt it in the 78 degree basements of homeowners after they’ve had air sealing done and fancy new mechanicals put in. This kind of behavior could be a real barrier in achieving local and national climate action goals in the near future, and is the result of a lack of education, not some demonic plot by the 1960s ranch house down the street to destroy the earth. If the new army of emerging “green” experts only treat the symptom and not the cause, homeowners will not change their behavior because they likely don’t understand the importance of changing their habits. Habits are, without a doubt, the MOST important part of any environmental movement, despite what your Pella Windows rep will tell you. And it is education that is often lost in marketing materials and hasty audits.

For the love of Pete, let's be sure to explain to homeowners how to maintain native plantings so the don't think they are weeds that are harming their turf grass. Photo: Mike MacDonald/ChicagoNature.com

And green education extends beyond just keeping your furnace at a lower temperature and turning off the lights—how about things like on-site water retention and native landscaping? Ever plant a native lawn for someone, only to return a year later to see that they’ve been mowing it like Kentucky Blue Grass? Yeah, that happens. And why wouldn’t it? Who in the last 50 years—at least in the Chicagoland area—has done anything but dump fertilizers and pesticides on their grass and mow the bejesus out of their tiny little plot of lush lawn? Beyond that, neighbors sometimes view urban-tolerant species and native landscaping’s more wild appearance as being the result of a lazy homeowner. As if they had a bunch of car carcasses rusting in their front yard that would drive down the value of everyone’s real estate on the block. Why not educate the homeowner so that they can, in turn, educate their neighbors? When people understand things, they can feel good about them and brag about them and motivate others to do the same.

Let’s all just slow down a half second and take the extra time to educate those who we are trying to help. Really, it is often only a matter of minutes in our day and the results will be so much better and more meaningful. Otherwise, we’re patting ourselves on the back a little too hard, dig?

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This week we have a featured Guest blogger! Paul Trudeau is a Program Specialist for the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions at the University of Georgia. He has much to say about the new “Cash for Caulkers” initiative as well, and I’m pleased as punch that he wanted to post on this site. From Paul:

I happened upon a story on NPR last week regarding President Obama’s so-called “Cash for Caulkers” program announcement. For some reason beyond my comprehension, Ron Saxton, a former candidate for governor in Oregon, was invited to the White House to participate in a “jobs forum” to discuss components of the program. For those of you who don’t know Ron Saxton, he is a former gubernatorial candidate from Oregon and currently the Executive Vice President of Jeld-Wen windows, a very popular window replacement company (also based in Oregon). He’s also a renowned anti-environmentalist and his gubernatorial campaigns were apparently funded by polluters (http://www.candidatesforsale.com/cgi-bin/display.cgi?page=saxton). As I was reading the story, I found myself most disturbed. But before I get into that, let’s take a closer look at Cash for Caulkers.

Hmmm, is that Buddha I see in the caulk?

The program was developed as an additional strategy to create jobs under Obama’s stimulus package. The New York Times reported on the program last November, noting that “the housing bust has idled contractors and construction workers, who could be put to work insulating homes and caulking air leaks. Many households, meanwhile, would save substantial money — not to mention help the climate — by weatherizing their homes.” Sounds fair enough, huh? Why not have contractors get back to work doing good things to save people money and help the climate?

So back to the disturbing part. The White House hosts a jobs forum to discuss a weatherization program intended to stimulate the economy, get contractors back to work, and help the environment, and they invite a bigwig window replacement executive who has a history of bad environmental policies. Say what? Saxton proudly declares that “America has literally a billion, with a B, single pane inefficient windows…replacing even a fraction of those produces huge energy savings, as well as creating jobs, and those jobs can be created immediately.” A most convenient quote coming from the executive vice-president of a window replacement company! Most preservationists (myself included) will eagerly point to studies that show that the restoration of a single-paned wood window and addition of a storm window will be just as energy-efficient as a double-paned replacement window. Remember folks, it’s air infiltration that’s the primary culprit; even a tripled-paned window installed in place of a single-paned window will leak air around the perimeter of the frame. That’s what you get with dem old houses! Additionally, window restoration is a much more sustainable practice – old wood windows were made of durable materials, are easily repaired, and will outlast replacement windows by decades if properly maintained. Window restoration is also much more labor intensive than installing new windows, which can create sustainable jobs. So, if the evidence shows that properly restoring those old “single pane inefficient windows” will save energy, help the environment, and help the economy, how can we get this message across to those policy makers at the top? Wouldn’t it make more sense to invite a preservation carpenter or window restoration specialist to a jobs forum on this subject?

Window Scientist. Hahahahahahah. Hahahahahaha!

Window Scientist. Hahahahahahah. Hahahahahaha!

The answer to these questions may lie in our ability to educate homeowners at the local level first. If we as preservationists can slowly change the “quick-fix” mentality that is thrust open so many homeowners (including vinyl siding and other so-called “maintenance free” products) and successfully tout the environmental and economic benefits of restoration practices, that will help. But as most of us in the field know, it’s an uphill battle. Finding qualified contractors to do the work is hard enough, let alone convincing homeowners that those old, rattling windows can actually work properly. But as Carla has been discussing recently, the notion of having qualified energy raters go into people’s homes and school them on window myths could be very effective, as seen in Baltimore, for example.

It’s an open-ended question, and we need to come up with some good answers, stat!

p.s. as I make the final edits to this guest blog, I happened upon a story in the L.A. Times about Obama’s recent trip to Home Depot to “plug” (pun intended) the Cash for Caulkers program. Seems like he is being fed some serious misinformation–I mean, who needs more business than Home Depot??? Let’s move those cheap vinyl windows, people!

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I had every intention of posting artfully crafted paragraphs about energy auditing, complete with new, timely statistics and pictures throughout the post. The reality is that I’m so exhausted after a week-long whirlwind RESNET training session that I can’t even muster the energy to get a beer our of the fridge. Which I’ve been meaning to do for the past 3 hours. Physics and geometry have been resurrected from the deepest recesses of my brain (ouch), and facts on leaky ductwork and temperature differentials are still banging around in my skull after 5 twelve- to fourteen-hour days of cramming. So, you know, please bear with me if I ramble on in my current state. At least you can’t see me drooling on the couch.

On the first day of training, I learned that RESNET, like most energy rating systems, is actually focused primarily on new construction. Energy Star and other programs work in conjunction with RESNET on nothing less than a total gut rehab–meaning that the house needs to be torn down to the studs so that insulation and air sealing can be done or redone properly and effectively. This is obviously not ideal for historic homes. The RESNET scores uses the HERS Index, where a score of zero is ideal as it implies a zero-energy home. Granted, it will take decades for a zero-energy home to “earn” back the energy that it took to make it, but if you’re going to build new, it’s a good goal. Unfortunately, embodied energy isn’t rewarded in the same way even though an older home has already paid its sustainability dues and can be easily improved for efficiency.

Michigan's first LEED Platinum gut rehab. The homes HERS Index on this historic frame home was 216. I must admit, that is terrible.

In terms of scoring, there are many strikes against historic homes–for example, preservationists advocate for thoughtful insulation solutions like drilling small holes into walls and blowing in cellulose vs. tearing all the plaster down to insulate. Unfortunately, any insulation that cannot be seen is considered “Grade III,” and will lower the score on a report. Creative solutions that lead to keeping what you already have vs. replacing what you have don’t get points even though there is an obvious environmental benefit. In fact, more total waste is created annually from rehabbing homes than demo. Of course, this is likely due to the fact that we rehab more than we build new, which is a good thing, but considering how much waste is created by demo, it’s still a staggering thought.

Having said all of that, I still think that energy audits can and should be performed on older structures. Vintage homes may not make the grade on the final RESNET report, but wow, anyone who owns an older home certainly can benefit from these audits. You may not get to brag about your points on fancy plaque or qualify for grant funds under LEED for Homes or Energy Star, but you’ll get a more comfortable and efficient home.

Oh, and I should mention that new windows were repeatedly discouraged as a viable energy saving measure during the training. And, Obama’s new “Cash for Calkers” program could really give older buildings a leg up and compensate for some of the grant funds that are not available to existing homes, not to mention create more work for energy auditors and contractors.

It is unfortunate that there still doesn’t seem to be a way to evaluate the environmental benefits of living in older homes, i.e. embodied energy, or perhaps the amount of material that has been kept out of landfills because historic home owners haven’t added stories to their homes or gutted them every 20 years. And beyond materials, there are built in systems to help ventilate homes, allow heat to escape, etc. On the other hand, RESNET, or rather the HERS Index, is specifically designed to measure energy consumption based on how a homeowner is currently using their home, so it’s difficult to fault the system for not being more sensitive to historic homes. Energy consumed is energy consumed, and this system can help historic homeowners consume less. Period.

So….who wants to come up with an energy rating system for historic homes? If you want something done right…

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