For 36 years, my professional community has been the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. This past week we gathered once again in Boston for the Building Energy Conference. It was one of the best ever. I go to Building Energy to get my mind twisted out of my ordinary fixed ideas and to learn new ways to think. This year was a bumper crop.
I took a half day workshop with Greg Norris, who is an expert in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which seeks to quantify the embodied energy, water, and other impacts in materials and products. He recently become Chief Scientist at the International Living Futures Institute, whose first initiative is the Living Building Challenge, but who are going beyond that to products and neighborhoods.
In this workshop on non-toxic materials was the most inspiring thing I heard at the entire conference - the concept of handprinting. The premise is that everything we buy or consume has a footprint, and even a vegan bike-riding solar powered person dressed in second hand clothes has a footprint – there’s no such thing as a zero footprint. In other words, a footprint represents what we take. But we can act positively as well – a simple example is planting a tree – and those actions can use the same analytic tools in many cases to tally up the give as well as the take of our selves and organizations. Handprinting combined with footprinting leads to the concept of NetPositive, giving more than we take. I found it to be a liberating construct. One exciting aspect is that the definition of what constitutes a handprint vs. a reduced footprint is yet to be fully defined in relation to buildings. When we design and build a net zero building, is the baseline the code building, or is it no building? Big difference! Thanks to Greg for doing this work!
Footprinting and LCA were embedded into the conference. South Mountain Company has been footprinting our operations - office and shop and jobsite energy, employee transportation, materials transportation. The most obvious conclusion has been that employee transportation on the Island is the largest portion by far, and we've recently re-aligned our benefits and incentives to promote higher efficiency transportation, chiefly electric vehicles. Byggmeister and SMC presented a session on our beginner's steps on this stuff, and Byggmeister's work focused beyond ours to include the embodied energy in the materials they put into place. We're starting a similar effort in analyzing a couple of the affordable houses we've built. Detailed stuff, would make even a bookkeeper's brain trip out on overload!
Howard Brown of dMass and Mark Loeffler of Atelier 10 spoke about the dematerialization of our economy. Brown was a student of Buckminster Fuller and reminds us that people want benefits not products, and every effort to deliver the benefits with less mass gets closer to the proposition of naked value, and has lower environmental impact. As Howard succinctly says, benefits are weightless. What was inspiring was the number of items they showed that last year were in development and this year were on the market. Brown emphasizes that it’s increasingly common that breakthroughs are being made by people without specialized training but rather a determination to find a better way to do something.
Examples of cool stuff:
- Piezoelectric tiles in high traffic areas like subway stations to generate electricity
- Ecovative adding to their base business of producing packing material from ag waste and fungal mycelium to making structural biocomposites to replace materials like OSB
- Concrete cloth – rolls of cloth impregnated with cement, dampen and it sets up
- Building-integrated wastewater hydropower in high rise buildings, and power from pressure reducing valves in pipelines
- Active ceramic anti-bacterial tiles - http://www.active-ceramic.com/antibacterial-tiles/
The closing forum had three old farts, I mean, friends and three young superstars each doing 20 slides in the pecha kucha technique. It was a rousing and inspiring finish to a great gathering – old guys John Abrams, Terry Brennan, and Chuck Silver, with the young-uns Stephanie Horowitz, Ace McArleton, and Declan Keefe showing us the way to the future.
I got to meet past and new students from my Zero Net Energy Homes Online Course, about to begin on Monday the 9th. And I saw hundreds of friends and colleagues, all gathered to vision a better future, and share wholeheartedly our collective experience on how to get there. If you missed BE this year, well, like the Sox, there's always next year.