Passive Building Standards–What about Embodied Energy/Carbon?

GWPHIUS Senior Scientist Graham Wright is back this week, this time following up on a comment made to his One Cereal Aisle, Many Cereals post from last week. Reader Sarah Larsen (thanks Sarah!) asked about embodied carbon issues. The answer, we thought, deserved its own post, and we hope, discussion.

First, here’s Sarah’s comment:

Graham, thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful post. As a licensed architect, and CPHC I am already inclined toward the PHIUS methods, but continue to be curious about the nerdy differences, how, and why they came to be. I am also incredibly happy with the relationships being developed between PHIUS and code/regulatory agencies; it is critical that energy-efficient building practices spread beyond the geeky few.

The graph shows per capita energy consumption (kg oil equivalent) vs. per capita GDP, PPP (current international $). The size of the bubbles denotes total poulation per country. All values refer to the year 2011. Courtesy European Environment Agency.

The graph shows per capita energy consumption (kg oil equivalent) vs. per capita GDP, PPP (current international $). The size of the bubbles denotes total population per country. Click to enlarge. Data from the Eureopean Environment Agency and the World Bank.

With that said where is the EMBODIED CARBON calculation in our standards?? I can’t stress enough how important it is that we take this into consideration. There are PHIUS certified buildings being developed touting their energy and sustainable credentials who are using products with CO2e paybacks that will almost certainly never be met. We have just 10 years to get this right – a 90 year ROI is not going to cut it! I am very much afraid that if we develop code requirements with blinders on to anything but energy *consumption* we will have the reverse impact that we are working toward – climate catastrophe – by packing our buildings full of foam rather than thoughtfully balancing carbon footprint throughout a life-cycle assessment (LCA).

LCA has some growing up to do, but tools such as Tally are already making better, more broad-thinking choices available to anyone who cares. It is critical that leaders such as PHIUS be talking about embodied carbon and the up-front resource demands of our built environment. I think we could adapt Michael Pollan’s advice on eating as the best way to consume other resources: Build efficiently; not too much; use mostly plants.-– yours in climate-conscious building – Sarah Larsen

Now, back to Graham:

We are aware of the issue but feel we are not yet to the point where we can outright standardize, that is, make hard and fast rules. The Norwegian Institute for Zero Emission Buildings came up with some different definitions depending on how many building life cycle phases are included.

We can move more aggressively to put up some resources and guidelines. There are a couple of books I have found that seem to be helpful for making design decisions:

Most of the thinking I have seen focuses on materials, but I am not convinced that is a broad enough view of it. Suppose one uses low embodied carbon materials but this requires a lot of expensive skilled labor. The money paid for that fans out into the general fossil-powered economy, which has a certain emissions intensity per dollar, so there are emissions associated with all that economic activity, so maybe you don’t come out ahead.

From that point of view, low-cost construction is low-emission construction, and everyone is trying to do that already. I remember back in 2013 or so, the IEA or the EIA put up an interactive data browser that let you see what they were thinking in terms of scenarios to limit warming to 2 degrees C. It was clear that they were not counting on much of a contribution from the building sector. It’s pretty clear that the reason for this is that the turnover of the building stock is too slow, there just isn’t enough time anymore.

As I recall in their 2 C scenario for the U.S., almost half the total savings came from decarbonizing the generation of electricity. The “electrify everything” movement has strengthened since, Architecture 2030 seems to be on board with that, recognizing that anything done in new construction standards doesn’t do anything about the existing buildings, which is most of the problem within that next-ten-years window — so the priority is to stop emissions from existing buildings by electrifying. This is part of the reason we modified the overall energy criterion for PHIUS+ 2018 — it allows for off-site renewables now and that is compatible with the “electrify everything” idea. Some people, like ILFI, go even further and just ban all combustion from building operations.

But back to the embodied emissions. Here is an idea I had about how that might be written into a rule. Let’s call it PHIUS+ Equity & Carbon 😀

It would address both equity and embodied energy/emissions with adjustment to the Source energy limit based on construction budget, on the idea I mentioned above, that embodied energies/emissions are roughly indicated by how much money is being spent, along with the emissions intensity of the national economy.

The adjustment would be based on the idea of limiting the total operating + embodied, so, operating + embodied < 714+221 = 935 kWh/sf for example.

To generalize:

SE * 70 yr + $CB * NatkWh / NatGDP < 10.2 kWh/sf.yr * 70 yr + $170/sf * NatkWh / NatGDP

where

SE = modeled net source energy for the project [kWh/sf.yr]   — about 10.2 kWh/sf.yr
$CB = project construction budget [$/sf]   — about $170 /sf, U.S.
NatkWh = National source energy use [kWh]  — about 29 trillion kWh, U.S.

NatGDP = National gross domestic product [$]   — about 19 trillion USD

This is mathematically equivalent to adding a penalty for high-budget construction and a credit for low-budget construction, which is in the equitable direction, on a world wide basis even. The emissions intensity of the Indonesian economy is actually higher than the U.S., I make it out to be 0.44 kgCO2e / USD, while the U.S. is 0.29 kgCO2e/USD. But they catch a break with the above scheme because their cost of construction is a lot lower, about $60/sf instead of $170 for the U.S., so multiply those two numbers together and the Indonesian building industry is putting out 0.44×60 = 26 kgCO2e/sf while the U.S. building industry puts out 0.29×170 = 49 kg/sf.

I switched to carbon accounting for a minute there, but I still prefer source energy accounting. It’s a pretty good proxy for emissions because 80% of the primary energy is coming from fossil fuel burning, but I like that source energy penalizes nuclear for being nonrenewable, whereas straight carbon accounting gives it almost a free pass.

Solving the above equation for Source Energy criterion:

SE < 10.2 kWh/sf + [($170/sf – $CB) / 70 yr] * NatkWh / NatGDP

This would also tend to do a favor for retrofit projects if they are able to save construction cost by reusing the structure — and that is the high-embodied-emission part, for concrete and steel buildings, from a materials point of view. The $170/sf could be generalized to a national average value as well, $NatCB. For residential projects, just substitute for the 10.2 as 3840 kWh/person * ResOcc / iCFA.

Probably only the operating-energy part of it tapers to zero in future. More emphasis can be put on initial-cost/embodied-energy savings by shortening the time frame. At 20 years instead of 70 they are about equal in the initial example. This would favor retrofits even more.

Reality Show: Monitored Passive House results from Salem, Oregon

All — thanks for all of your contributions and comments about fine-tuning the standard. It’s going to be an exciting process. Continuing that discussion, let’s look at a few really good examples of certified Passive Houses that were modeled for various North American climate zones, and for which we have good monitoring data. The graphic below makes clear that generally, the climates of North America and Central Europe are not directly comparable. One small region–running from the northwest U.S. Coast into Canada–matches the Central European conditions.

 

Therefore, we’ll look first at a certified project in Salem, Ore., and evaluate how accurately the PHPP modeled the actual monitored experience.

The Salem, Ore., home that's been monitored for a year.

Again — as stated in the inaugural blog post, the core principles behind the Passive House concept, some of which date back to the early 1970s — are not in question. Minimizing the peak loads to a point when balancing the ins and outs (losses and gains) produces  a building that nearly reaches equilibrium. Such a building needs very little active energy input — and this only a few months of the year — to maintain comfort.

If the space conditioning meets our 1 W/sqft peak heating load and 0.8 W/sq peak cooling load requirements, then we get the icing on the cake: For mechanicals, we can either use point sources throughout the space or integrate the space conditioning in the ventilation air. In the Northwest, with next to no cooling requirement and lots of passive cooling potential, integrating conditioning and ventilation could prove to be the most cost effective solution.

Let’s look at how one Passive House project played out in Salem, Ore. The 16th & Nebraska project (also known as the Rue-Evans House, named for its owners) was built by Blake Bilyeu and his father. Blake Bilyeu is a pioneer — he took one of the first PHIUS Certified Passive House Consultant training courses offered. And by 2010, he had completed the 16th & Nebraska project. It became one of the first projects certified by PHIUS.

By U.S. Department of Energy climate zone definitions, Salem is considered a marine climate, characterized by:

  • mean temperature of coldest month between 27-65 F
  • warmest month mean of less than 72 F
  • at least four months with mean temperatures over 50 F
  • dry season in summer (month with heaviest precipitation at least 3x of driest month)

Here’s the Salem climate data at a glance:

And data for Bonn, Germany.

The climates are very similar: Average temperatures in Salem are a little higher by 4.6 F in winter in Salem, summer highs are the same, and precipitation is generally higher in the Pacific Northwest. Both locations have limited solar availability.

The project’s PHPP data at a glance confirms that both Passive House criteria are met: the annual heating demand criterion with 4.02 kBTU/sqft yr as well as the peak heat load with 2.9 BTU/hr.sqft. There is no need for cooling.

The general specifications of the exterior envelope components are:

  • R-45 in the wall, the roof has R-96, the floor over crawl space has R-51.
  • The average window installed U-value is 0.226 BTU/hr.sqft.F with orientation specific SHGC of 0.23 for E-N-W orientations and 0.46 SHGC for the South

Note: The window figures are unadjusted NFRC values. Passive House window calculations will result in slightly adjusted values. The PHIUS Technical Committee is developing a method for converting values and/or a protocol to more accurately calculate the window values needed for PHPP. The Tech Committee will make it available for comment in an upcoming PHIUS e-Newsletter.  Many thanks to Graham Irwin, John Semmelhack and Graham Wright, who already have devoted a lot of hours to this project!

Energy consumption at the project was monitored for a full year. Over that period, the home was occupied by its new owners (a young couple and a dog, and eventually the couple’s newborn baby. The owners blogged about their early experience — check it out.)

A detailed monitoring report on the first year was prepared by the company Ecotope. (Many thanks to the Ecotope team that graciously gave PHIUS permission to make the information available to the Passive House community. PHIUS plans to share more monitored data from other projects soon—stay tuned.)

Download the full report here. From the executive summary:

The 16th and Nebraska Passive House project located in Salem, Oregon is an impressive example of an energy efficient home. The home is built to the stringent requirements of the Passive House (PH) program. The home’s energy use for the first year post-construction place it in the top tier of the most energy efficient single family homes in the Pacific Northwest. The first-year stats for the project are listed below:

  • First Year Total Annual Energy Use: 5,413 kWh/yr
  • Electric Utility Cost per Year: $700
  • Energy Savings estimate over Oregon Code: 9,064 kWh/yr
  • EUI (using gross sq ft of 1,885 sf): 9.8 kBtu/sf/yr2

The Salem Passive House home blows away today’s code homes, and nearly meets — right now — Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030  Challenge for 80% reduction:

Back to the original questions: how do actual results compare to what was modeled in the PHPP, and what conclusions can be drawn from potential deviations of the measured results to the modeled results?

To start, some of the results are rather unexpected:

The actual first year’s energy use came in between what was predicted and what is allowed in the Passive House program, 5,413 kWh/yr. This results in a 63% energy use reduction over an electrically heated home built to the Oregon 2008 Code. This represents a savings of $750/yr in utility costs.

The DOE Building America Program aims for 70% in overall energy reduction. With 63%, this is below what one might have expected. If the modeled results had actually been met the building would have been saving 73% over the code home. Reading on:

This home represents the upper limits of conservation that can be controlled by the designers and builders; or what can be achieved by applying most of the energy efficiency measures currently available. Space heating and DHW represent 13% of the home’s total energy use. The remaining loads are plugs, appliances, lights, cooling, and energy recovery ventilator (ERV) fans. Since PH is a modeled certification program, there is no guarantee that a home modeled to meet the PH standard will actually perform to the PH standard once built. It is clear that maintaining the PH energy use levels is a function of occupant behavior and lifestyle choices. More research and development of tools for modeling plugs and appliances in the PHPP program should be made available to the PH community.

The report points out higher plug loads and attributes this to the American lifestyle. As we have compared electrical loads modeled in PHPP and actual consumption, we find a large discrepancy between what’s modeled and actual results throughout many North American projects which seems to confirm the author’s explanation.  

Conclusion: We need more accurate protocols for the American household. We need to identify realistic stringent savings recommendations and adjust the initial assumptions in the household electricity sheet accordingly. This measured result also points to the potentially higher importance of the source energy criterion rather than the focus on annual heating demand.

The measured space heating demand constitutes only 1/4 of what was actually predicted. Once the additional household consumption is taken into account, though, in the internal heat gains the results once again are pretty close to what PHPP predicted. The modeled kWh amount for space heat in the diagram is reflecting the assumed 3.2 COP of the heat pump; if provided through direct resistance  that would amount to 3.2 times 694 kWh,  equaling a little over 1800 kWh/yr. The discrepancy is roughly the additional kWh use for the DVR and server, which is direct electric internal heat gain (no bonus through COP). That explains the total higher energy consumption.

In short, the predicted space heat demand result is indeed very close to the modeled prediction. On the flip side though, there is talk about energy used for cooling in the report and the PHPP modeled 0 energy use for cooling. Additional household consumption can be used to replace heating needs in winter, in summer it adds to the energy used for cooling needs.

The report concludes:

This 16th & Nebraska Passive House home represents the leading edge of current energy conservation. Insulation has been maxed out, the envelope is extremely air tight, and the glazing percentage has been reduced to 15%. The solar water heating system is providing 69% of the hot water energy, the home uses highly efficient appliances, low lighting levels, and a very efficient ERV. The remaining loads are a product of the American lifestyle and are the hardest loads to control without major impacts to lifestyle.

For the Northwest, the Salem example indicates that the PHPP is, as expected, reasonably accurate in predicting the annual space conditioning. Assumptions for household and plug loads need to be revisited and entered as correctly as possible, but this is not a climate but rather a market issue.

Just as in Germany, the Salem project proves Passive House is a good basis for net zero. From the report:

This project is a great example of what is possible with the PH program and represents one path to achieving net zero energy use. A 6-7 kW PV array on the roof with the current 3 people living in the home would take this project to a net zero energy status.

That’s a sizable PV installation, but, just like in Germany, forgoing active energy in favor of conservation is more cost-effective.

So we’ve seen what happens when we apply Passive House in a climate very close to the European climate. To predict space conditioning it works very well. American life style and market, we have some work to do.

Applicability in regards to humidity, hygrothermal concerns and the impacts on airtightness recommendations for this climate will be addressed separately at a later time.

Next, we’ll venture into more extreme North American climates to evaluate that experience. Stay tuned for more!

Kat