Case Study in Sustainable Building

By Thomas Anderson


Course: Case Study in Sustainable Building
Instructor: Thomas Anderson
  • Greenly Center
    50 E Main St, Bloomsburg, PA 17815
Course Slides:
  • Students will learn a high-level overview of sustainable building, energy conservation, and off-grid energy production as a foundation for further study on the topic.

What is "Sustainable Building"?

  • Able to be maintained at the current rate or level indefinitely -- economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically.
  • High resource efficiency throughout a structure's life cycle.
  • Uses renewable technologies with few if any external inputs.
  • Low environmental impact, minimal waste products.
  • Ideally, achieves thermodynamic equilibrium or steady state.
  • Sustainable Building Standards

  • Energy Star - a certification for homes that use 15-30% less energy than typical homes.
  • LEED - a set of sustainability principles which include energy savings of 25-30%, water efficiency, waste management, rainwater management, indoor air quality, daylighting, transportation considerations, and other measures.
  • Passive House - sustainable construction concept that provides for affordable, high-quality buildings as well as comfortable, healthy living conditions, generally including 60-90% energy savings and very low heating costs.
  • Net zero - buildings that generate at least as much energy as they use on an annual basis, with the seasonal deficits and excesses relying on the grid to make up the difference.
  • What is "Off-Grid"?

  • Providing substantially all of your own needs, including electricity, heat, water, sanitation, and food.
  • Excess production is stored on-site for times of deficit.
  • Self-sufficient and independent of civilization.
  • But still enjoy modern comforts and conveniences.
  • Off-grid is NOT synonymous with minimalist, primitive living.
  • Motivations for Going Off-Grid

    Risks to the Grid

  • Changes in supply & demand due to severe summer heat or winter cold, geopolitical instability, trade sanctions, tariffs, war, et cetera, may cause shortages or price surges.
  • Carbon caps and environmental regulations place artificial scarcity and costs on fossil fuel use, exacerbating natural limitations.
  • Governments may add onerous new energy taxes at any time. E.g. in 2013, Pennsylvania approved a 56% hike in the gasoline tax.
  • Incompetence and competing interests in government and industry introduce risk. E.g. price caps & market manipulation in 2000-2001 sent California electric prices soaring 800% and caused rolling blackouts.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • Peak oil means that the cheap, easy oil and gas has already been found, so going forward, fossil fuels will be scarcer and more expensive.
  • Monetary policy may drive steep inflation causing costs to far outstrip income. The Federal Reserve printed over $4 trillion in response to the 2008 financial crisis. That is not without consequences.
  • On-demand just-in-time supply chains mean a single point of failure may cause widespread shortages. Stores typically have just three days of stock on hand at any time. Almost everything is delivered by truck as-needed. If trucks stop, people starve.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • Aging grid infrastructure makes catastrophic failures more likely. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, "most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy," meaning that half of the electric grid is at least a decade older than what it was designed to last.
  • The grid is overloaded. The ASCE report further stated that "more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states' power grids are at full capacity," meaning there's no margin for error and maximum wear and tear is occurring.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • Severe storms (or less) may trigger cascading failures. E.g. Super-storm Sandy left millions on the east coast without power and a shortage of gasoline in 2012 for weeks.
  • In 2003, over 50 million people in the Northeast U.S. and Canada lost power for days, triggered only by foliage falling on a line.
  • "Between 2003 and 2012, weather-related outages, coupled with aging infrastructure, are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion," according to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. That means that if these tens of billions of dollars per year cease being available for whatever reason such as depression, financial or monetary collapse, bond crisis, trade war, natural disasters, etc., that parts or all of the grid will fall apart.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • None of the grid is hardened against coronal mass ejections (CME), electromagnetic pulse (EMP), or terrorism. According to Cynthia Ayers from the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, large power transformers, which can weigh up to 820,000 lbs, are especially vulnerable. They're custom built with long lead times and 85% of them are imported. They cost from $2.5 to $10 million each and could take from 6 to 24 months to replace one. They're also currently aging much faster than they're being replaced, and they have virtually no physical security.
  • In the "Metcalf Incident" in San Jose in April 2013, a small team carrying AK-47s destroyed 17 medium-sized transformers, causing $15 million in damage. If the attackers had been just a little more knowledgeable and targeted a different part of the transformers, it would have prevented the control center from rerouting power and Silicon Valley would have gone black.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • A memo from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) noted that if someone could "destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer... the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer."
  • Cyber attacks have already targeted military, oil & gas, energy & utilities, transporation, airlines, airports, hospitals, and aerospace industries worldwide, according to the 2014 Operation Cleaver report.
  • In December 2015, a Trojan-horse malware program called BlackEnergy was used go gain unauthorized access to critical energy infrastructure computer systems in Ukraine, taking out power to 225,000 customers. Another, more organized, attack in December 2016 resulted in the loss of 1/5th of Kiev's power for over an hour. Similar malware has been found in U.S. systems. Many parts of the U.S. grid are less secure than Ukraine's and would take longer to recover. A "digital first strike" is a real threat according to USCYBERCOM Commander Admiral Michael Rogers.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • The Carrington Event, which in 1859 was a coronal mass ejection (CME) equivalent to over a billion hydrogen bombs, took out telegraph systems across Europe and North America, with fountains of sparks erupting from telegraph pylons. This scale of event is thought to occur roughly every 100 to 150 years, and we're already potentially decades overdue. In 2012, a Carrington-class storm just barely missed Earth. It's not a question of whether, but when, one will hit us again. The chance that we will be hit with a Carrington-class or larger CME is 100%. A Carrington-class CME will completely decimate the electric grid, most devices connected to it, and start fires across the country.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is created by way of a high altitude nuclear detonation. High-energy neutrons emitted by the nuclear explosion create an electromagnetic disturbance all the way to the ground at a much wider frequency range than a CME. Whereas a CME is a major threat to the large power transformers and miles of electrical grid wires, an EMP will also disable much smaller devices including vehicles, computers, cell phones, and micro-controllers. That means that anything invented in the past 40-50 years will be out of commission unless hardened against EMP with shielding. North Korea has already demonstrated that they have EMP weapons that are capable of taking down the U.S. electrical grid. China and Russia have had these weapons for decades.
  • Risks to the Grid

  • Without the nation's electrical grid, in the span of 365 days (or the first winter), between 66% and 90% of our population will be dead according to the Congressional EMP Commission report. Our sovereignty as a nation would very likely be in question. There is insufficient knowledge and resources on the local, state, or federal level to handle this kind of event. It is estimated that it would take AT LEAST four years to recover the core critical infrastructure, by which time it will be years too late for most of the population.
  • 263 million Americans, or about 81% of the American population, live in cities and are wholly dependent on the electric grid. If the grid goes down, they have no water, refrigeration, heat, transportation fuel, means to cook, air conditioning, ventilation, communication, etc. Their environment becomes entirely toxic to human life. The greater proportion of suburban and rural people who adopt an off-grid mindset, the more likely it is that pockets of civilization can endure.
  • Off Grid Benefits

  • Off-grid systems are a capital investment which provide tax-free non-monetary dividends – electricity, heat, water, food, etc.
  • Not only do you not pay income taxes on these returns, you don’t have to earn income to purchase these things, pay tax on that income, or pay the sales taxes and service fees associated with purchasing them. You may even get tax rebates or credits.
  • And if you earn less money because you don't need to spend as much, you'll be in a lower tax bracket. Thus your cost of living is significantly reduced.
  • Greater quality of life is made possible by eliminating expenses and work and the stress of paying bills.
  • Off Grid Benefits

  • Being less dependent on a paycheck makes you resilient to recessions. It's better than unemployment insurance.
  • You don't need a massive inflation-hedged nest egg in order to have a long and secure retirement. You can't depend on Social Security, Medicare, or public pensions to be there by the time you retire.
  • Freedom from external constraints, demands, and limitations enables long-term planning.
  • Becoming financially independent – without needing to be rich – enables you to retire or cut back your hours and focus more on family, hobbies, education, starting a business, or other pursuits.
  • Principles I've Followed

  • Jujitsu - In modern home design, the brute force of fuels and electricity directly oppose our environment. However, that is very inefficient and expensive. We should be using the environment’s own energies to achieve climate control and sustainable resource utilization.
  • Conservation – first and foremost, eliminate waste. Increase insulation, upgrade appliances, etc.
  • Availability – use what you have, don’t get exotic. If you have a southern-facing location, use solar. If you have a creek, use micro-hydro.
  • Redundancy – use multiple, complementary sources. When providing your own resources, you can't depend on any single point of failure.
  • Simplicity – reduce future work and maintenance. Minimize unnecessary components.
  • Automation – it should just work without intervention. An off-grid house should work for you, not vice-versa.
  • Methods I've Employed

    Heating & Cooling

    • Passive Solar
    • Earth Sheltering
    • Thermal Mass
    • Multifactor Insulation
    • Low-E Windows
    • Solar Thermal Heating
    • Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating
    • Landscape Cooling
    • Root Cellar Refrigeration
    • Efficient Wood Fuel Stoves
    • Propane Backup Heating


    • Earth Tube Air Tempering
    • Stack Effect Ventilation
    • Cross-breeze Cooling

    Power & Light

    • Photovoltaics
    • Wind Power
    • Thermoelectric Power
    • Deep Cycle Batteries
    • LED Lighting
    • Solar Tube Daylighting
    • DC Appliances
    • Horn Amplifiers
    • Home Automation
    • Propane Backup Generator

    Water & Sanitation

    • Water Conservation
    • Rainwater Collection
    • Atmospheric Water Production
    • Well & Septic
    • Graywater Reuse




    Collect Heat in Winter

    • Southern exposure maximizes insolation
    • Low-E windows trap infrared energy
    • Thermal mass absorbs and stores heat
    • Insulation prevents heat transfer through walls

    Repel Heat in Summer

    • Limited E/W exposure minimizes insolation
    • Overhangs shade windows from direct sunlight
    • Arbors or trees provide additional shading
    • Thick roof insulation prevents overheating
    • Thermal mass stores nighttime coolth



    Thermal Mass

  • A thermal mass is a material with high volumetric heat capacity, which is the product of the specific heat and the density of the material.
  • Analagous to a flywheel, battery, or capacitor
  • Should also have moderately high emissivity and low conductivity in order to absorb and emit heat over a span of hours and not dump it too quickly.
  • Material Specific Heat (BTU/lb°F) Density (lb/cf) Heat Capacity (BTU/cf°F) Emissivity Conductivity (BTU/hr*ft°F)
    air (dry) 0.24 0.08 0.019 0.80 0.014
    sheetrock 0.26 38 10 0.90 0.10
    wood (pine/fir) 0.40 35 14 0.95 0.08
    wood (birch) 0.40 42 17 0.93 0.08
    wood (maple) 0.40 47 19 0.90 0.09
    wood (oak) 0.40 48 19 0.89 0.10
    soil (dry) 0.19 100 19 0.40 0.29
    lead 0.03 709 21 0.06 20.20
    brick 0.20 120 24 0.90 0.35
    glass 0.17 161 27 0.93 0.61
    alcohol 0.58 49 28 0.95 0.10
    slate 0.18 168 30 0.75 1.16
    concrete 0.21 150 32 0.90 0.50
    granite 0.19 168 32 0.89 2.00
    asphalt 0.24 145 35 0.88 0.43
    aluminum 0.21 169 36 0.03 118.00
    porcelain 0.26 150 39 0.95 0.87
    soil (wet) 0.35 125 44 0.98 0.90
    clay 0.33 150 50 0.95 0.90
    copper 0.09 557 50 0.10 232.00
    iron 0.11 490 54 0.90 46.20
    ammonia (aq) 1.12 51 57 0.95 0.34
    steel 0.12 491 59 0.20 24.80
    water 1.00 63 63 0.99 0.34

    Kitchen/foyer insulated concrete slab:
    240 cf * 32 BTU/cf°F = 7680 BTU/°F

    January day gain:
    170,249.35 BTU / 7680 BTU/°F = 22.2°F
    e.g. slab 55°F --> 77.2°F

    House air volume:
    27,000 cf * 0.019 BTU/cf°F = 513 BTU/°F

    Each 1°F the slab loses...
    will cause the air to gain (or resist losing)...
    1°F * (7680 BTU/°F) / (513 BTU/°F) = 15°F

    Earth Sheltering / Passive Geothermal

  • Soil and rock act as a thermal mass, heat sink, and insulator
  • Burying either all or part of the structure acts to reduce diurnal temperature volatility
  • Passive annual heat storage (PAHS) helps reduce seasonal heating/cooling
  • Insulation

    Three kinds of heat transfer


    • Fiberglass, cellulose, or spray foam insulation impedes conduction of heat through walls


    • House wrap on the exterior, vapor barrier on the interior, foaming of all wall openings, and installing weather stripping will prevent the movement of air between inside and outside


    • Reflective aluminum radiant barrier installed in the walls and ceilings prevents the transmission of infrared EM waves through the structure

    High-density Closed-cell Spray Foam

  • 100% vapor barrier – no mold/termites
  • 100% air infiltration barrier – tight envelope
  • Very high R-value (about R-7 per inch)
  • Relatively opaque to infrared
  • Structurally rigid; adds to building integrity
  • No CFCs, VOCs, 5-BDEs, Urea Formaldehyde
  • Mix with fiberglass (flash & batt) or cellulose (flash & fill) for lower cost, most of benefits
  • Radiant Barrier

    97% reflective

    Solar Thermal Heating

  • Very efficient heat source
  • Powers both domestic hot water and hydronic heating
  • Even works in the dead of winter and with cloud cover
  • Combines easily into a hybrid system containing a wood furnace, on-demand propane, and other heat sources
  • Hydronic Heating

    Radiant Floor Heating

  • More efficient heat distribution than forced air or baseboard – produces more comfort at lower temperatures
  • Lower water temperature allows it to be powered by a water heater or solar thermal
  • Does not pressurize building like forced air
  • Landscape Cooling

  • Deciduous trees planted on the south side of the house will provide summer shading and evaporative cooling, but allow winter sun to pass
  • Evergreen trees and shrubs on the north, east, and west sides act as a wind break
  • Positioning of trees and shrubs to channel wind
  • Window-shading arbors
  • Water features for evaporative cooling
  • Root Cellar Refrigeration

  • In winter, uses the coolth from the outdoors for refrigeration
  • Efficient Wood Fuel Stoves

  • Renewable
  • Readily available
  • Low or no cost
  • Carbon-neutral
  • Efficient
  • Effective
  • Labor-intensive, but excellent top-off or last-resort heat source for supplementing other systems
  • Stack Effect Ventilation

  • Hot air is naturally exhausted via its own buoyancy
  • Fresh air is drawn in via thermosiphon
  • Self-regulated process dependent on temperature – the hotter it is, the more ventilation provided
  • Can be enhanced by the use of a solar chimney
  • Earth Tube Air Tempering

  • Moderates the temperature of outside fresh air before being introduced into the building
  • Powered entirely by convection or by a small electric fan
  • Jujitsu alternative to heat recovery ventilators
  • Cross-breeze Cooling

  • Taking advantage of opposite windows to ventilate and cool
  • Especially effective on summer nights
  • Solar Photovoltaics

  • Plentiful energy source, even in Northern latitudes
  • Reliable – no moving parts
  • Most widely available alternative energy – any southern exposure
  • More expensive than other alternatives, but great in a hybrid system
  • Energy inflation will make any PV investment worthwhile over the course of its rated lifespan
  • Wind Power

  • Low-cost energy
  • Few moving parts – only occasional maintenance
  • Self-furling for safety
  • Excellent for combination with solar in a hybrid system – wind is usually stronger when overcast and in winter
  • Abundant in PA – largely class 3 or 4
  • Feasible with average wind speeds of 5 – 25 MPH
  • Thermoelectric Power

  • On-demand renewable power source
  • High cost per watt, but can run 24/7
  • Very complimentary to winter wood heating
  • Propane Backup

  • For low energy supply times – overcast, calm
  • For high demand times – parties, house guests
  • Too expensive to size a system for worst case
  • Electricity, heat, laundry, and cooking
  • High energy-density – lots of bang for the buck
  • Portable; can be delivered to remote locations
  • Stable when stored for long periods
  • Clean; no spills like with gasoline or diesel
  • Deep Cycle Batteries

  • Batteries are the heart of an off-grid electrical system
  • All power sources charge the batteries
  • All loads draw from the batteries
  • LED Lighting

  • Extreme efficiency
  • Durable, reliable, long-lived
  • Alternating or direct current
  • No mercury, unlike in CFLs
  • No glass which can break
  • Low heat generation
  • Slightly more expensive up-front, but far cheaper over the life of the bulb, often measured in decades!
  • Newer bulbs have very good color rendering (better than compact fluorescent)
  • Solar Tube Daylighting

  • Magnifying lens pulls sunlight through a reflective tube to a ceiling fixture
  • Provides bright, natural day lighting with very little thermal loss
  • Superior to windows for natural light on north face of house
  • Water Conservation

    Water Conservation equals energy conservation

    • Pumping water requires energy
    • Filtering water requires energy
    • Softening water requires energy
    • Heating water requires energy
    • Disposing of waste water requires energy


    • Water & energy efficient (ENERGY STAR) dish and clothes washers – use 1/3rd to 1/10th as much water as older models
    • Low flow shower heads
    • Low flow toilets – use less than half the water of old toilets
    • Grey water disposal or recycling – keep from running septic pump
    • Rain barrels for landscape watering or toilet flushing – free, gravity-fed, fresh water from the sky – no pumping
    • Xeriscaping - Native plants which require little fertilizer, irrigation, or maintenance

    Hot Water Recirculation

  • Pump hot water to fixtures just prior to being requested so that water is not wasted waiting for it to heat up
  • Uses small 20W circulator pump
  • Saves 2000W+ well pump & septic pump
  • Can be triggered by motion sensor in bathrooms
  • Direct Current

  • Wind turbine, PV panels, and batteries all work in DC
  • Converting to Alternating Current (AC) is subject to a 10-20% efficiency loss
  • Using DC lighting and appliances retains full efficiency
  • Many DC products available for the RV and boat markets
  • Not all appliances have a DC counterpart on the market, but the most important ones do – well pump, refrigerator, freezer, circulator pumps
  • Laptop computers, cell phone chargers, stereos, and other electronics often have a 12V cigarette plug
  • Direct Current

  • With low-cost DC voltage regulators, all manner of battery-powered electronics can be run directly and permanently off of the household battery system without an inverter
  • Any product that has a "wall wart" or "power brick" is inherently DC
  • Horn Amplified Speaker System

  • Produces high decibels without added electricity
  • Same principle as old-time record players with a horn connected to a vibrating needle
  • Couples the sound to the room gradually instead of by brute force like high-powered drivers do
  • Like taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Replaces approximately 500W of electronic amplification
  • Better sound over a wider frequency range
  • Conclusion

  • Most methods are low-cost and require only forethought
  • Resources are abundant in Pennsylvania
  • Conservation is easier and more cost-effective than energy generation
  • Methods don’t have to be implemented all at once
  • Most or all of the methods are feasible for new or existing homes in PA
  • Register Now! Call 570-389-4420

  • Off-grid Energy Systems I -- Thursdays, March 8-29, 2018, 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
  • Off-grid Energy Systems II -- Thursdays, April 5-26, 2018, 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM