Earth Day Thoughts on Green Building

There’s an apartment building under construction near my office. The building’s marketing materials tout “Green Features” such as energy-efficient windows, low-e glazing, and energy-efficient lighting. That’s good, that’s all good.

But for some unknown reason, the juncture of the building wrap and those energy-efficient windows has been constructed using an inexpensive and outdated technique that does not produce an air-tight seal. In other words, those window units themselves may be energy-efficient, but the parts of the building enclosure that include those windows are likely to let hot air in during the summer and let warm air out during the winter. Not energy-efficient.

So, here’s some stuff I’ve said before, but am saying again:

Construction industry professionals cannot become “green skilled” without first becoming generally skilled. Being generally experienced in one’s field is a prerequisite to being “green” experienced.

A person without considerable experience in general architecture, engineering, or construction cannot be an effective “green skilled” employee for an architecture, engineering, or construction firm.

“Green” design and construction skills are icing on a cake made up of plain old experience and hard work. That icing cannot stand up by itself. You can’t just learn “green” design and construction skills and not bother with general design and construction skills.   

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to green building initiatives.

Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), green building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

A building that has green features such as energy-efficient windows, but that does not meet current standards for basic construction of the building envelope, is not a green building.

Yes, I contacted someone who might be able to do something about that weird window/building wrap juncture. He confirmed that it’s weird – informed me that it’s outdated, and also informed me that that installation is likely to void the building wrap’s warranty. I hope it can be fixed. I really, really care about buildings.

13 thoughts on “Earth Day Thoughts on Green Building

  1. To quote Bob Dylan, “And every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burning coal…”

    I couldn’t agree more. Before we can raise the bar of building performance, we have to, as an industry, try to at least meet the minimum requirements. Few people realize how elusive quality is in the real world of construction.

  2. Your blog this week reminds me of the fallacy of expecting effective sound transmission performance out of a poorly built partition with an STC 50 door in it. Flanking paths of sound are often disregarded by designers who focus on providing a high rating only at the openings in a partition. The same is true of an operable partition. All the edge conditions need to be addressed as well as installing an operable partition with a high STC rating. Transitions and edge conditions pose the greatest challenges to architects, and yet receive the least attention, it seems. Flashing details also come to mind…

    • Thanks, Cliff. Your door sounds just like those windows near me.

      THIS IS WHY WE NEED DESIGN PROFESSIONALS. Yes, manufacturers know more about their products than most design professionals. But transitions and edges need to be OUR realm.

  3. AMEN on the whole piece! You sure have a wealth of thoughts!!!

    GLORY BE for multiple mentions of “basic technology”– point made here [wonder how often and where else?????}

    Ralph W. Liebing, RA, CSI, CDT
    Senior Architect- Specifications

  4. Maintaining a continuous vapor / air barrier in a building envelope is a difficult detail design issue, Other new ‘green’ design techniques (such as increased wall cavity insulation for example) make proper detailing at penetrations even harder, requiring new methods, some of which have conflicting ‘benefits’ / problems. This is not to say we should not try. It is to say that good traditional construction practice is indeed important AND that some new creative detailing is also mandatory. Some creative new products could also be developed (or imported from England / Europe where they are already in use).

    • Marty, thanks for your comment. I agree with you. However, in this particular case, I don’t think the building is experiencing conflicting green goals. It’s just another example of cheap Colorado construction, with a little greenwashing. I sent you an email with a photo of the building.

  5. LEED has managed to become synonymous with sustainability itself despite the absence of sustainability-critical life cycle considerations such as assemblies, details, building enclosure, quality assurance, project delivery, facility management, operations, communications, and the critical interrelationships of these many factors. Such qualitative variables are certainly as important as the quantitative ones, but almost impossible to “score.” I fear that the flaws and shortcomings of LEED are reaching a point where they are tarnishing the very concept of sustainability.

  6. Another excellent post Liz. Thanks for continuing to promote smart design and construction! Greenwashing is a huge problem in the industry. You cannot just hang a plaque on a building and make it sustainable. You need a team of experts that understand everything from the transitions and edges to the latest understanding of building science. How many times do I have to get the contractor to remove the tape from the bottom of the window flashing to let the water out that may get in?

  7. Your comments on construction inconsistencies are very incisive, Liz. Much of my consulting practice time is spent helping constructors and architects improve their understanding of the correlation between the intent of window and door flashing detail drawings, and communicating to field personnel the practices that are necessary for them to perform repeatedly in order to accomplish weatherproof construction. With the possible exception of recycling construction waste – at least on project sites I’ve been involved at – the “building green” concept isn’t something that translates regularly into day-to-day activities. “Get ‘er done” trumps “green”.

    The best way I’ve found to move everyone to a “same page” mindset is to have everyone present during construction detail installation mock-ups and put the focus of the activity on achieving installation quality that can be repeatedly reproduced. It’s pretty much like an outdoor show-and-tell classroom, where each of the tradespeople who will be involved in each aspect of the detailing get to perform their work and comment on best practices. The end result is consensus on how things will progress for that detail from that time forward. Discussions are usually split evenly between why specific materials are being incorporated into the project (the design team’s input) and how to best install the materials (the constructor team).

    • I agree, Joe. I’ve seen a very similar approach used as part of a quality assurance observation program at a mixed-use development. The end result: less RFIs, less call-backs, lower insurance premiums, and a sense of empowerment among tradespeople. Perhaps even more importantly, the sales professionals had a much easier time closing on the condo units – buyers did place a premium on third-party quality assurance verification. Whether a project is “green” or not, it takes a real commitment from all parties to get the job done right, instead of just “getting ‘er done.”

      But unless the job is done right, it can never be truly sustainable.

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