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the juncture of the building wrap and those energy-efficient windows has been constructed using an inexpensive and outdated technique that does not produce an air-tight seal.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 He confirmed that it’s weird – informed me that it’s outdated, and also informed me that that installation is likely to void the building wrap’s warranty.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.

What is “Building Technology”?

I often mention “building technology” in my blog posts.  I’ve realized that I’m using a term that many people aren’t familiar with.

When I use the term “building technology,” I am not talking about information technology within a building.  I am not talking about the software technologies used to design buildings.  I’m not talking about only high-performance buildings.  I am not talking about only new technologies in building systems.

I am talking about “technology” in terms of its most basic, stripped-down definition: “1. The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. 2. A manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.”  (Definition is from Merriam Webster.)

And I am talking about “building” as defined by Webster, too: “The art or business of assembling materials into a structure.”

When I use the term “building technology,” I mean knowledge of the technical processes and methods of assembling buildings.  Drawing proper construction details requires understanding building technology.  Identifying conflicts between the construction documents and the way things are being built on the job site requires understanding building technology.

Knowledge of building technology is an important part of the practice of architecture, but it’s an area in which many of today’s young architects are weak.  This is an area in which I was weak, until I started writing specs and suddenly had starting points for researching my questions (or rather, I suddenly realized what questions I ought to be asking).1

We hear a lot about high-performance new technologies in buildings, but somehow, we seem to have lost the basics of knowledge about detailing foundation, roof, and exterior wall assemblies that meet the minimum of the applicable code requirements.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot properly prepare construction documents for submittal to the authorities having jurisdiction for the purposes of obtaining a building permit.

From the 2009 International Building Code (which has been adopted by many municipalities), Chapter 1, 107.2.4 “Exterior Wall Envelope”:

“Construction documents for all buildings shall describe the exterior wall envelope in sufficient detail to determine compliance with this code. The construction documents shall provide details of the exterior wall envelope as required, including flashing, intersections with dissimilar materials, corners, end details, control joints, intersections at roof, eaves or parapets, means of drainage, water-resistive membrane and details around openings.” 

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot demonstrate (to an owner, to a contractor, or to the building department) the constructability of a design.  A building is not made up of bits and pieces erected next to each other; a building is composed of interrelated systems and assemblies that work together to contribute to the building’s proper functioning.  If these components are not carefully selected, specified, and detailed, with the designer taking into account these components’ effects on all the other parts of the building, the completed building may not be able to protect its occupants from drafts, moisture intrusion, mold, condensation, cold, outside noise, or excessive heat.

When I worked as a project architect, I often put off the detailing of tricky conditions until the last possible time.  I know that some other architects do, too.  Drawing construction details is hard work.  There are other, more fun, more easily achieved, tasks that also must be accomplished before a set of construction documents is finished.  But waiting to detail the tough transitions is a problem – when we finally get into the meat of these things, sometimes we realize that the assumptions we’d carried all along were incorrect, and we need a taller parapet, or we need more rigid insulation in the cavity, or we need a building expansion joint.

This detailing work can be less tedious, less torturous, and less time-consuming when we have more knowledge and more understanding of these things.  We produce better construction documents, and help to get better buildings built, when we know more about building technology.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to high-performance building initiatives, such as those by the Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC) of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program, the U.S. Green Building Council, and many cities and states.  Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), high-performance building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

But… who’s teaching architects about basic building technology today?

Architecture school curricula have gotten heavier on design; architecture graduates are supposed to learn almost everything else they need to know during their internships.  But as more and more knowledgeable gray-haired architects retire, many of the mentors for interns and young architects know less about basic building technology than the mentors of the past.

CSI (the Construction Specifications Institute) recognizes this problem, and is currently exploring the concept of a Building Technology Education Program.  The task team for this program has been charged with formulating “the concept of a building technology education program for participants in the design/construction industry that will benefit the industry by raising the technical knowledge of the participants.”  I don’t think a program like this exists today, and I don’t think that any other organization is working on anything comprehensive like this proposed education program.2

This program is envisioned as being for everyone in the construction industry – not just for intern architects and emerging professionals.  (Architects, remember: we’re part of the construction industry.)  The more that everyone in the industry can understand the concept that all parts of a building are interrelated, and that a modification to one assembly may require modifications to other assemblies, the more effective all of us in the construction industry can be.

Notes:________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Here are some links to past blog posts of mine that discuss technical weakness in architects – including my own past technical weakness.  I have greatly increased my understanding of building technology – anyone can.
    1. https://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/architects-take-back-the-reins/
    2. https://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-one/
    3. https://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-two/
  2. Here’s the roster of the Building Technology Education Program Task Team on the CSI website http://new.csinet.org/csi_services/committees.aspx.  (Scroll down to “FY 2013 Building Technology Education Task Team.”)  If you have suggestions for the team, please contact one of the members.

Cool Pictures of Old Buildings

There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Phoenix that’s at risk of being demolished in a couple of months.  Here’s the New York Times article about it.  After Mike Brady, Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous American architect ever,1 so how is this happening?  How is it possible that cool buildings designed by famous architects can get knocked down?  The answer is that sometimes the people who want to save them just get there too late.

But this post isn’t about “The Brady Bunch,” Frank Lloyd Wright, or mid-century modern homes.  It’s about Denver and its heritage.  Right here in Denver, buildings by less famous architects, buildings that are integral parts of their neighborhoods, buildings that are important parts of the city’s history, are at risk.

Once in a while, a century-old masonry building, that, with careful maintenance, would still be around for another 100 years, gets razed to make way for new construction.  Most of the new construction in Denver is unlikely to last as long as 50 years.  This type of replacement is not sustainable, this is not green, this is not good for Denver’s urban fabric and its urban dwellers.  People need to become aware of these buildings early, before they become at risk of destruction.  Sure, there are property rights issues that arise sometimes, but if we start talking about rights, we cannot ignore the property rights of the surrounding property owners, and the rights of the citizens to these parts of their heritage.

On to the cool pictures of the old buildings – or the links to them, anyway…

Two really special buildings that I’ve been in recently, the Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion and the Wilbur S. Raymond House, have been preserved and restored, and are currently the homes to a couple of bed and breakfasts.

Here’s a great old photo of Denver’s Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion, taken in 1892.  It looks almost too fantastic to be real.  The building has since lost some of that magnificent chimney, and many of the finials, but it’s still breathtakingly beautiful – here’s a recent photo (scroll down after the page opens).  The Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion has just started to operate as a bed and breakfast, the Patterson Inn.

Sadly, much of the original neighborhood fabric around the Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion has been lost.  But the Wilbur S. Raymond House is very much a part of a historic Denver neighborhood, the Wyman Historic District.  Here’s an old photo of the Raymond House.  It’s been the Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast since 1989.  This is my favorite image of the more recent images I’ve found online.  Here’s a good image showing its famous roses.

The neighborhood fabric and the Wilbur S. Raymond House enhance and enrich each other.  Cities aren’t made up of scattered signature buildings, and historic preservation shouldn’t be approached in that manner, either.  Cities are composed of neighborhoods, which are composed of buildings of varying significance.  We need to protect special buildings, but we need to go a step further and also protect the individual historic buildings that may not be as prominent, but without which, historic neighborhoods would not be complete.  Obviously, important buildings are at risk (such as that Frank Lloyd Wright house in Phoenix).  But neighborhood fabric buildings may be even more at risk.

Historic buildings are irreplaceable, whether they’re outstanding, or more “background” buildings.  As an architect and architectural specifications writer, and the owner of an old house, I’m intimately familiar with the differences between the construction practices of today and the construction practices of a century ago.  Buildings are not built the way they used to be.  In other words, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”  (“They” could, but “they” don’t.)  Old masonry buildings are more durable, they can take much more neglect and mistreatment, than new buildings (even new buildings with brick on the outside).  It’s because of building science – a topic for another post.

Architects, engineers, and constructors cannot make up for occupant behavior in most new construction, but old buildings, with plaster finishes, hardwood floors, and multi-wythe loadbearing masonry exterior walls, can take some abuse and neglect from occupants, and will continue to be able to withstand use.  Old buildings can often be adapted to new uses, whereas buildings built in the last 50 years are usually difficult to use for purposes other than their original uses.  Multi-wythe masonry walls and plaster finishes are more forgiving of moisture intrusion than buildings built with newer methods of brick veneer on exterior framing, and gypsum board finishes.

People used to build with multi-wythe masonry and plaster because they didn’t have other good options.  Today, we have less-expensive (and less-durable) options, which have made multi-wythe masonry and plaster much more expensive options.  If you want a durable building, in the long run, it’s probably a better value to use what you already have… and preserve an old building.

I encourage people who are interested in helping to preserve our built heritage to get involved with local preservation groups.  If you live in Greater Capitol Hill in Denver, as I do, your local preservation group is the CHUN (Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods) Historic Preservation Committee.  (If you don’t know what your group is, but want to get involved, leave a comment on this post and I’ll help you find your group.)

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Notes:

  1. I have to thank Jules Dingle for the Mike Brady comment.  Sophomore year in college, Jules said that Mike Brady is the most famous American architect.  Obviously, that comment still cracks me up today.

For further reading:

  1. In 1967, the City of Denver, in the Landmark Preservation Ordinance in the Municipal Code, declared that “the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures and districts of historical, architectural or geographic significance, located within the city or its mountain parks, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.”  And that “the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of this city cannot be maintained or enhanced by disregarding the historical, architectural and geographic heritage of the city and by ignoring the destruction or defacement of such cultural assets.”
  2. Denver’s ordinance followed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, in which the U.S. decided that“the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans,” and that “although the major burdens of historic preservation have been borne and major efforts initiated by private agencies and individuals, and both should continue to play a vital role, it is nevertheless necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to accelerate its historic preservation programs and activities, to give maximum encouragement to agencies and individuals undertaking preservation by private means, and to assist State and local governments and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States to expand and accelerate their historic preservation programs and activities.”

While You’re the Caretaker of an Old Brick Building…

We’re doing some maintenance work on our home, a 1904 brick foursquare in Denver (a “Denver Square”).  Someone painted the brick years before we bought it, and it’s time for fresh paint.  Preparation of the brick for repainting revealed that we needed much more repointing (tuckpointing) of the mortar joints than I had anticipated.  So… what does that mean?

Old brick buildings are really interesting.  The brick is often pretty “soft,” and the mortar is even “softer.”  By soft, I mean that you can gouge it or wear it away pretty easily; it’s, well, kind of weak.  Our house has butter joints – really skinny mortar joints – with mortar color that matched the brick color.  The house must have been so beautiful before someone came up with the “genius” idea of painting the brick… but I suspect that they painted because they thought they could substitute painting for repointing those mortar joints.  Well, now we’re repainting AND repointing, so THAT didn’t work!  Whoever made that decision decades ago really wasn’t acting in the best interests of the house.  Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing at all than to do the wrong thing to a building.

Masonry walls need to be able to let water out, and need to be able to let water VAPOR out, and individual bricks in a wall need to be able to move a bit, in case they expand due to water absorption.  Yes, bricks are a bit porous, and water gets into brick walls.  You just can’t keep water out, so you always need to provide ways for it to GET out.  Unless you want damaged bricks, you need the bricks to be able to move, and you need the brick wall to be able to “breathe,” at the locations of the mortar joints, so you need the mortar to be “softer” than the brick (weaker and more porous).

When it’s time to do repairs on an old brick building, you need someone who knows how to do it right.  (Mortar-in-a-tube is not the right thing to use on an old building!  Old mortar was made with much more lime than today’s mixes have – for old masonry, you really need a specialist.)  We hired a mason who specializes in restoration of historic masonry.  No, we didn’t need some of the fancy things that masonry restorers are capable of doing, such as matching new mortar color to the existing historic mortar color.  (Ours will be painted over).  But not everything that we do for buildings is for appearances.  Much of what the caretakers (you know, the owners) of old buildings need to be doing is for the long-term FUNCTIONING and durability of the buildings.  Building elements that function well, and are durable for the long-term, contribute greatly to the beauty of buildings.

Durability should be a primary focus of the sustainable (green) building movement.  Build buildings well in the first place, maintain them properly over the years, and keep all that embodied energy in our cities instead of sending it off to landfills.  Some well-meaning people are trying to ram an ethic of sustainability into a throw-away society, and it’s just not gonna work unless we develop, train, and properly compensate, our skilled building tradespeople, and develop in homeowners a strong sense of needing to care for their buildings, instead of just selling and leaving when maintenance needs present themselves.

I got off an important tangent up there.  Back to that paint – the new paint is a necessary evil for my house, since someone already painted the brick years ago.  Paint that is firmly attached to old brick should not be removed – removing the paint almost always removes the toughest part of the brick – the part that got fired.  The inside of the brick is a bit softer than the exterior fired surface, so once a historic brick building has been painted, it should remain painted.  Removing the paint could cause the brick to slowly erode away.  However – you want paint that will not keep water in that wall.  You want paint that can “breathe.”  Flat paint typically is more vapor permeable than glossy paint, and latex paint is more vapor permeable than alkyd or oil-based paint, so if you have to paint brick, use flat latex paint.  I wanted flat paint for aesthetic reasons, so I was thrilled to find out from Diane Travis at the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute that I was on the right track functionally with flat paint because of its higher vapor permeability.  Diane emailed me this great brochure on “Maintenance and Repair of Older Masonry Buildings” when I contacted her for masonry contractor recommendations.  The brochure is a good resource, and so is the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute!  You can download a copy of the brochure if you click here.

Regarding those skilled tradespeople – I got two recommendations for masonry contractors who specialize in historic masonry repair and restoration.  Both contractors were highly recommended, and were recommended by more than one person.  Both do commercial and residential work.  I met with Gary Holt of Olde English Masonry  and John Voelker of Cornerstone Restoration, and we hired Cornerstone because of schedule availability.  Cornerstone did great work.  If you need a masonry specialist, either contractor would be great.  They’re both busy, so plan ahead.  Your old brick building deserves to be maintained by an expert.  While you’re the caretaker of an old brick building, do the right thing for your brick.

Old Windows, LEED®, and Historic Character

We have storm windows on the outside of the original windows on our century-old house in Denver.  From inside our home, I get to enjoy the wavy character of the old glass and the beauty of the old wood.  I try to discourage neighbors and friends from window replacement, and encourage them to get storm windows instead.  LEED® encourages window replacement, but it shouldn’t.  Here’s why, taken straight from a publication by the National Institute of Building Sciences:

“LEED® fails to acknowledge that historic windows are important features and that their energy efficiency can be upgraded.  LEED® encourages the use of highly energy efficient windows, which often requires the removal of historic windows that are potentially reusable.  Moreover, original windows are character-defining features of historic buildings and their removal can significantly alter a structure’s integrity, thus conflicting with preservation goals and the Secretary’s Standards.

“With proper maintenance, windows built from old growth wood can function indefinitely and their performance can be substantially bolstered by using storm windows, caulk, and weather-stripping.  Studies have shown that these simple improvements can result in efficiency similar to that of new insulated glass windows.  Modern windows also have a relatively short lifespan and can be difficult, if not impossible, to repair.  Once modern windows fail, there are few ways they can be recycled, and they will likely end up in landfills.  This begins an environmentally insensitive cycle of removal and replacement.

“Therefore, the most responsible approach is to retain historic windows that last and retrofit them with increased effectiveness rather than install new windows that, without exception, will fail and cannot be repaired.  Regrettably, the replacement window industry is strong, and old windows are touted as poor performers, so the common practice of replacing windows in not likely to change much in the immediate future.  To combat this, LEED® should consider awarding points for the repair and continued use of old windows where significant improvements in energy efficiency are demonstrated, as well as where significant amounts of historic fabric are being retained and reused.”  –  National Institute of Building Sciences, Whole Building Design Guide, WBDG13 “Strategies for Sustainable Historic Preservation”

The bold text above highlights the important issue.  The most sustainable thing to use is what you already have, especially when it’s as precious as a historic window.