#icestorm2013

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As I am sure many of you are still hearing about the aftermath of this storm, or trying to living through it right now, I want to start off this blog post with a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Years to you and your family. For me, the power went out in the wee hours of Sunday and came back on Tuesday afternoon; I can’t think of a better gift for Santa to bring me this Christmas. This post’s origin started as I was taking a hot shower on Christmas Day and thinking about robustness of our electrical systems.

The hot shower I took on Christmas was not the first since the power went out; thankfully, I live in a building that still has a LPG-driven water heater. That meant hot water during the coldest periods of the blackout to restore some level of civility. I talked to a few people living in newer homes who did not have hot water because their tank-less heaters are power-driven, and their home phones stopped working after the battery backup ran out. What seems worrisome to me about this type of house design is the single point of failure for the house’s various services, there doesn’t seem to be any attention paid to the principle of redundancies.

This was the springboard to the main topic of this article. I believe there are other ways of understanding and selling alternative forms of electricity generation. Just as there are other ways to ensure some house services remain in service during power outage. Alternative modes of electricity generation like wind, solar PV and geothermal are not intended to REPLACE other sources that are more energy dense but only to augment them. Let’s put it this way, it’s way easier to install wind, solar PV and geothermal at your house than it is to install a hydropower plant beside your shed. In the case of power outage, it is likely that geothermal and wind will continue to provide minimal heat and electricity to a house while waiting for the power grid to be reinstated. In many mission critical operations this is known as building redundancies and is considered a best practice. I think this particular line of thinking has a place in the present municipal/provincial/state discussions on energy generation robustness.

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Right person for the right job

The recent news about homeowners who contracted spray polyurethane foam installers to insulate their houses brought home the dangerous maze that typical people have to negotiate in the residential construction field. I have included CBC’s article here but I would suggest anyone to read up more on it to gain a better understanding. The long and short of the story is that a few homeowners wanted to improve the R-value of their houses by retrofitting them with EPU (expanding polyurethane) and some contractors erred when mixing the components onsite, which then led to excessive off-gassing period and strong odour inside the home. My current project, is to a certain degree, very similar. Property management contracted someone to do remedial concrete repair and within weeks, the remediation has done more harm than good.

Having the correct people to do work and the correct people to specify how that work should be carried out is very important. It’s the reason to have capable foremen and engineers at commercial/institutional construction. This fact is always lost in residential construction where the desire to keep cost down is frequently the main driver. This works against homeowners because of the arduousness of the recourse available to the homeowners should anything go awry, e.g. construction budget overrun or product performance issues. While I seldomly see this in larger residential construction projects, but for small renovations, the terms “handyman” or “I know a guy” comes to mind.

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Popping the dream of cityslickers

Traffic, traffic, traffic.

For the past week, I’ve had ample opportunities to sit in the car and listen to the radio as I am commute to work. There are a lot of talk about how green downtown living is and the benefits of having a less suburban, more cohesive community of people as your neighbours. However, I have to satisfy myself with a more critical examination of these claims. It’s true that I live just outside of downtown and I have to commute to my work, but I endeavour to limit my car use to only that part of life. If the main thrust by developers and real estate firms to rejuvenate the downtown core by building condominiums is not met with increased places of employment and leisure, then what are we doing really other than creating rush hour traffic going the other way? I feel in the absent of this improvement, the close proximity of your grocery store, café and gym to your condo is meaningless.

No, I don’t have the silver bullet. However, as I have said in a previous article, there are a lot of reasons to warrant a closer look at Sustainable Neighbourhoods where the need to travel between different “cells” is minimized. As long as there are good densities of work, leisure and social services options in each cell, people can be living green and environmentally responsible. Otherwise, we are lying to ourselves about the real reason of downtown living – so you can get your shawarma and your Starbucks, while you take your tiny dog out for a walk on a Saturday.

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Around the corner

A new career awaits me in a few short days and this will be fundamentally different from what I was doing when I first started leedingthoughts.com. To a certain degree, I thought be able to devote more time to this project and have more material from which to draw on; however, as both the career and this website are quite cerebral I hope I will have the mental energy to keep this site current.

I am also trying something new. I will from now on end an entry with a preview of the topic for the next article, for example, is the LEED standard suffering from incrementalism?

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Household product safe disposal – Triclosan

I was home recently and I found several bottles of half used soapless cleansers that contained that creepy chemical the media has been warning us about – triclosan. For those that have not been paying particular attention to their personal cleaning products, here is a description of triclosan from the Government of Canada and here is a description of triclosan from Wikipedia. I no longer use the product and I was trying to find the best way to dispose of this. Originally I contemplated either slowly use up these products or putting these directly down the drain and then recycling those bottles. Thankfully I followed neither of those and just a few days ago I asked one of my geotextile colleagues and he immediately referred me to the strengths of geotextiles used in landfills. The typical engineered landfill geotextiles, he believed, ought to be adequate in securing any chemicals leaking out of containers within the landfill. Check with your local waste management authorities but I believe that the best way forward to dispose of unwanted unspecified household liquids may in fact be to put them in with the trash. Go figure…

As always, comments and questions are welcomed.

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Usage Tax/User Fees

I am writing this while sitting inside a public library, which I partially pay for this public library through the government’s various taxing schemes. In certain angle, I guess you can say that I don’t pay to use the service but I have faith in the way tax revenues are divvied up and presume that the right portion of money is going to the public library system.

I am familiar with the concept but I am new to the term Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), thanks to C.D. Howe Institute’s The Eco-Fee Imbroglio. Summarily, the concept suggests that a financial cost more representative of the true environmental cost to an economic activity should be borne by all the parties involved in the transaction, namely the manufacturer, retailer and user. This will ensure all parties consider the entire life cycle of the product, as well as the product that the new one is replacing. When this financial cost is passed down onto the consumers, I call this a usage tax/user fee.

Personally, I have no issues with user fees and in fact I believe this to be a useful tool to quantify consumer’s desire for a product or service. Some years ago, I was prompted by my telecommunication service provider to switch over to paperless invoices and bills to be environmentally friendly and the alternative was to pay a small fee to continue receiving paper copies. It was a no-brainer for me. However, years now since I switched, I still know people that are dubious of this offering and whether the money collected for paper copies are used as a revenue tool or as means to promote positive environmental behaviour. That becomes a matter of trust I guess.

One of the ways to increase effectiveness is to ensure that a user-fee program is participated by a majority of the companies within a sector. I believe this is a constructive way to increase the integrity of the program and to ensure customers that the revenue received is going to a stewardship fund, a environmental protection trust, etc.

I would highly recommend that all readers interested in this topic to go through the article from C.D. Howe as it provides numerous recommendation from the previous incarnations of user fee regimes.

As always, all questions and comments are welcomed.

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A New Crop

I was reminded today that another crop of engineering students has just received their Iron Rings this last month and thereby entered into a proud profession. I am also keenly aware of the changes that has happened since I graduated, nevermind in the last 30 years. When I was in university, environmental sustainability and LEED had hardly entered the curriculum of the undergraduate engineering student. Fast forward to 2013 and I am quite sure that many undergrad students have at least some experience with projects relating to those subjects, with even more graduate programs tailored for that purpose. That had gotten me thinking, how do engineers from different era see themselves? Do some see themselves as champions of environmental sustainability, among the likes of Al Gore and Gro Harlem Brundtland; and some merely see the whole LEED and environmental design as a scam and a meal ticket?

I do not believe this topic within the field of LEED has gotten much attention because it is not something directly affecting the performance of workers or the construction time of projects. However, as newer generations of engineers climb the corporate ladder there is a need in my mind to ensure the proverbial torch gets passed on to the proper individuals. Borne out of the green movement in the 80′s & 90′s, LEED was created as a system to document and characterize various building systems that could be made more energy efficient, environmentally friendly or less detriment on human health. I was too young in the 90′s to be directly involved with design in those days but I remember reading magazine articles where visionaries was constructing homes with plant gardens and glazing that will cut heating and cooling, while decreasing overall power grid use by using solar PV. Many of the engineers and designers now involved with LEED building design are the passionate individuals from that era but I am not entirely confident that their support staff, like the junior designers and the EITs, share their vision.

Why do I say use polarizing words? It’s because I believe people have cooled to the connectedness of climate change, environmental sustainability and the need for LEED construction. This is partly due to Canada’s political climate of the last ten or so years and the growing emphasis on ideology over science and research, which hurts the nurturing needed to educate engineering grads in the connectedness of the things I just mentioned. I fear many see LEED design/construction as simply another discipline and where I hope to see the creation of  future thought leaders and paradigm shift, in reality, they see paychecks for mortgage payments to the condo with 70% glazing and car payments to a luxury SUV. To be honest this concerns me, as our collective mentality becomes more consumeristic how will environmental sustainability and LEED construction/design interact with one another; will the two ideas diverge so much that in the future people involved in LEED design will laugh thinking of themselves as green individuals?

As always, all comments and questions are welcome.

[Ed. note: document updated for wording]

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