Early morning decarb musings…from the bottom up…join the conversation!

Note: After contributions from a number of fantastic guest bloggers, Katrin Klingenberg makes her return to the Klingenblog to give readers an inside look at her quest to achieve carbon neutrality both in her own life, as well as with her work at Phius.

It is June of 2021. Sipping my morning tea, reflecting. It has been a year of thought and reassessment and remembrance, letting go of the old ways…quiet before the storm…I feel grateful almost …the pandemic was harsh…training wheels for what is to come…are we ready?

In interviews with journalists, I often get asked: what was/is your core motivation? Why did you start Phius?

And my response is always along these lines: “I was looking for carbon neutrality in all aspects of my life; to take personal responsibility in light of a crisis, wanting to do my share, love and respect for the commons, a desire to distribute resources fairly so that all people can live in peace, balance and harmony.”

And then, as an architect, I recognized that buildings represent a big chunk of our global carbon emissions. Phius was my chance to be part of the solution. My professional commitment since 2002: I could no longer continue to add to the planetary carbon bill with my work. That effectively meant setting up every building to be capable of achieving zero and positive energy.

Climate change is an existential crisis that no one will be able to talk their way out of. There are no planet hospitals with a line out the door that impress on us how bad this is, no healthcare providers ringing the alarm. Well, actually…scientists and environmentalists have been sounding the alarm since the 60s. Society stuck its head in the sand and decided on doing fossil fuel biz as usual as if there was no tomorrow (pun intended). Consequently, we are really up against the wall now. We need courageous, superhuman really, political will and global consensus, turning every conventional notion of how things used to work upside down. We need a fast and effective campaign to inoculate our economies against the effects of shifting away from fossil fuels as fast as possible, just as fast and successful as the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The good news: Carbon neutrality is within reach. We are so close. That was our goal on our inaugural website in the mid 2000s. The Passive House Institute US declared its mission: making passive building standards code by 2020. 

For all intents and purposes, check! We effectively have achieved that goal in places that matter a lot, not as mandatory code but in the form of programs, incentives, local laws, alternative compliance paths: New York City, the State of Massachusetts, Washington State, Washington DC. And we initiated ASHRAE 227p. So, yes, on our way, check!!!!

And in its 2021 standards update, Phius made a very important decision – the flagship certification, while the zero energy passive baseline still exists – is now the Phius ZERO certification. I am so proud of our team, how far we have come as a community and how patiently we have built this shift together over the last 20 years. It is a marathon, not a sprint — sound familiar?

But we need to pick up the pace. Turning the entire building industry around is only step one. Even if we eventually build all new construction to our proven standards, decarbonize all buildings through deep retrofits, and decarbonize the energy supply, we still urgently need everybody’s help from the bottom up to take action.

That’s really what I’d like to discuss here. Start a discussion about meaningful personal action that can be taken by anyone who chooses to go in on this really important mission.

I’ll go first. Since all this has been a driving force in my entire life really, it has shaped my life path and my choices. Carbon neutrality requires rethinking and changing a few things.

In 2002, I decided that if I truly believed in the commons and fair share of resource distribution for everyone, I would have to walk the walk. 

I tried to determine the standard of living that could be attained by everyone in an equitable society while also meeting the carbon reduction goals required to adapt to and mitigate climate change. That meant reassessing everything in my life: where do my actions and life contribute to the problem and how can I fix it? Once you start thinking about it in this way it really ripples through everything. 

Let’s start with money. We all need to earn money to run our lives. Our economies run on oil. Every dollar in our pocket essentially represents wealth generated in some form by fossil fuels. The more dollars any one of us has, the more emissions you are essentially responsible for in your daily life transactions (carbon footprint by wealth category is another interesting topic, another blog). I decided to limit the money I was going to earn. And I decided to put the money I did earn back into the non-profit Phius to support market transformation toward zero energy buildings. 

I then, step by step, dialed in my living circumstances: how much space I was able to live in to stay within my fair-share space conditioning emissions budget, how much land around my house there should be and how I was going to use it (farming), my choice of car, vacation and travel miles, food choices…all had to be reassessed.

It was a process. But I’m happy to report that in 2021, reflecting over morning tea, I feel good. I feel really, really good about having achieved what I set out to do…at least in my personal life.

Smith House

Smith House

With little money to my name and no job at the time, I embarked in 2002 on building the Smith House like there was going to be no tomorrow if I did not do it. It was scary, but it turns out, where there is a will there is a way. 

The Smith House, 1000 sq ft, meant for three people, was built for being zero energy ready. In 2018, I finally added a 5 kW PV system, taking the house and about 10K electric car miles per year (a car which I don’t have yet) off the planetary carbon bill. 

What I overproduce in Urbana “pays” for my condo living in the city (since I am not using overproduction to drive). I never turn my heat or air conditioning on. It’s a small, but nice and comfy apartment, 30 minutes walking distance from everywhere I need to go. I have not been on planes, trains and automobiles in a long time and if I do get on I am conscious of each mile. 

I changed my diet, essentially vegan plus fish and an occasional egg. Looking at carbon emissions savings from those food choices…turns out they are very significant. I try to avoid the elevator, though, full disclosure, my apartment and office are both on the 14th floor, so that’s a challenge. Down is easier than up, let’s start there.

And…I’d like to deep energy retrofit my condo tower…already have a plan…but that for the time being will have to be done in the future.

What are your stories?

If you are interested in making similar changes, 2000-Watt Society is a great place to start.

Step it up from Earth Day to Energy Independence Week

Here’s a great idea from Graham Wright, PHIUS Senior Scientist and Chair of the PHIUS Technical Committee. We hope you’ll take up the challenge.

So, Earth Day was great, and everything. And the Earth Hour there.

Energy Independence Week. It's fun, it's patriotic, and we're virtually certain Stephen Colbert would approve.

Energy Independence Week. It’s fun, it’s patriotic, and we’re virtually certain Stephen Colbert would approve.

But let’s be real, Earth Day doesn’t challenge you to actually do anything in particular, and while Earth Hour does, that is vanishingly little  — one hour out of 8760 is addressing like 0.01% of the problem. After how many years now of Earth Day, what do you say we step the game up?

I call it Energy Independence Week. The idea is that, you extend the 4th of July holiday to a full week, during which you observe these three rules:

1. Use no grid electricity.
2. Burn no fossil fuels.
3. Make no trips to the grocery store.

It’s patriotic and fun. Like a staycation. You’ve got the charcoal grill out anyway. Notice that it’s twice as good even as “1% for the planet” in a couple of ways.

A) it’s 1 out of 52 instead of 1 out of 100, and
B) it’s not just a sacrifice concentrated on you for a diffuse benefit to the planet – it increases your own resilience.

I did this in 2008, a few months before I ever heard of passive house. But I like how it ties in – because of the time of year, it focuses attention on avoiding overheating, not a bad thing. (You will be fine if your passive house is not designed too hot. 😉 And it’s forgiving to the many of us who do not yet live in passive houses; this would be a much harder challenge yet in the winter, in most places.

At the time, I was living in rural Minnesota in a straw bale cottage, so heating and cooling wasn’t a problem. I got by with one solar panel and one battery for electricity. That was enough to run the well pump and my laptop. You don’t need much lighting in Minnesota that time of year. Instead of hot showers I swam in the river, which was a short bike ride away. It’s like camping but, you’ve got all your books or shoes with you.

Your challenges may vary. On rule 3 there, stocking up ahead of time is ok, preparations are part of the idea here. One of the other preparations I made was for irrigation — at the time I was trying to keep a bunch of discount hazelnut seedlings alive in the baking sun. I figured my little panel could not generate enough electricity to run the well pump for that, so I set up a big water barrel so I could gravity feed the orchard. Yeah, I faked it by filling it from the well ahead of time; ideally it would have been a real rain barrel all along.

Again, learning stuff like this is part of the fun. So, I hope you’ll take up the challenge and start planning now. And please, share your strategies, tactics, and experiences in the comments section here at the Klingenblog.

What does MS have to do with climate change?

Last September I was diagnosed with remitting-relapsing multiple sclerosis after a first—and frightening—attack. Despite the grim news I was intrigued by the elusiveness of the disease, and I started my journey of searching for answers and solutions to the question of how to best prevent or delay further attacks. I’ve learned a lot—and been reminded of a lot along the way.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a strange disease, characterized by so many different symptoms that some call it the disease with a 1000 faces. Little is known about the causes and consequently all approved therapies and medications aim at reducing symptoms, not at addressing a cause.

Yet, one thing most experts agree on is that there is likely a very strong environmental component to the disease. It is generally considered an autoimmune disorder —that is, the system that ordinarily protects one’s body from infections and other threats goes haywire. The autoimmune system attacks the body.

MS was first noted at the onset of the industrialized age at the end of the 19th century. There is no previous record of its incidence. Its occurrence has increased dramatically since and mostly in the developed richer nations. Significantly, the increase is most prevalent in nations that eat mostly a “meat and potato” diet, rather than a more Mediterranean or asian cuisine.

Changes in lifestyle over the past century (active/outdoor to sedentary/indoor), environmental factors such as increased toxins in air and water, and a shift in nutrition characterized by high animal fat intakes and highly processed food supplies are broadly suspected to be a significant part of the problem.

It’s been months since my diagnosis—during that time, after a lot of research, I made a decision to pursue a nutritional path to managing the disease over medication. Since that decision, the world has changed quite a bit for me for the better.

I found that the suggested causes and remedies were somewhat related to what started to look like an energy balance for a building. My systems had seriously gotten out of balance on every nutritional and lifestyle level! It’s become clear that my lifestyle for the last 10 or so years has systematically depleted my resources! I was running on fumes.

I felt somewhat consoled and excited by the fact that I knew something about rebalancing a system. I was accustomed to working on getting first to a balanced state through conservation and then eventually to a positive energy balance through consequent repletion. My thoughts were, if you can build a passive house you can rebalance your body, right? And here I went.

I began seeing real parallels between our efforts in the passive building community to rebalance resources with my individual efforts to rebalance my intakes. In each case, the goal is to assure that the taking and the giving is brought back into balance. A global society that constantly over-consumes and dumps tons and tons of carbon into the atmosphere as a result will eventually overwhelm the system and cause its collapse—just like my constantly depleting lifestyle depleted my body—and led to its attack on itself.

We live our lives by constantly going into debt with the planet’s resources (our body is a planetary resource) and think if we can just pay the minimum payment each month it does not matter how big our total balance is. Over-consuming and getting further away from being in balance and zeroing out our account, our modern lifestyles suffer from a similar effect.

I’ve read extensively about the interplay of ultra-busy but sedentary lifestyles and the perils of fast/processed food, factory farms and antibiotics, toxins, and increases in food allergies.

I’ve concluded that both MS and climate change are symptoms of excessive in-debtness with ourselves in the name of a convenient modern life style based on consumption, a life out of balance.

Ten years ago I made a resolution as an architect to work exclusively on passive buildings to take responsibility for my share of the rebalancing act. After my MS diagnosis, I made a similar resolution to rebalance my body and lifestyle instead of treating the symptoms with expensive medication and its own side effects. I soon found myself calculating an energy balance for my body, counting all different kinds of fats and oils and balancing them appropriately.  Every day I eat 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables, multiple grain servings and watch out for a whole set of other interesting nutritional factors to strengthen the brain, rebuild the nervous system, the autoimmune system and the cardiovascular system. I have not been so clear headed, focused and energetic in years. I have lost 30 pounds without trying…but I still have work to do on my exercise regimen.

All this has dovetailed with my professional mission: my carbon footprint has significantly improved! I’ve almost entirely eliminated meat, and I forgo gluten, dairy, processed grains, and other packaged food products (all energy-intensive foods). I buy organic and pastured chicken, local if possible.

In a way it was easy for me to make that decision—MS is a powerful motivator. I always wanted to eat this way but never was able to maintain it because I managed to justify the modern shortcuts of fast food, pizza and beer in the name of convenience, helping me to de-stress and save time and work more.

But I’ve learned that equation doesn’t add up in the end, and that this type of diet is broadly recommended to avoid the most common diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. All of these diseases are on a disturbing upswing. Just as the consequences of climate change is.

MS and climate change: they are similar looming invisible threats to our quality of life. Once an attack subsides things appear to be normal again and one is tempted to go back to business as usual and ignore the problem. But leaving the causes unattended will debilitate again, destroying quality of life, or life itself.

Here is my resolution: I don’t want to take any chances, neither with my body, the only one I have–nor with the planet, the only one I have. My body is an extension of my family, my house, my community, my city, my country, my planet.

MS and climate change are opportunities: they are second chances for us to end our follies and fix what we broke so that we may once again live in balance and peace. And that’s what I intend to do. And I think being in the passive house community puts me in terrific company. I’ve had terrific support, and I thank you all.

Meantime, there’s more to say about all this, but I’ll save it for a second installment….

Katrin

 

 

If it wasn’t for Rio… in honor of the 20th anniversary

In 1992, nearly every country in the world took part in what was hailed a “historic moment for humanity.”

The Rio Earth Summit in Brazil delivered a plan of action that would tackle greenhouse gases and climate change, stop species going extinct and save the forests. And if all that wasn’t enough, they committed to creating a “safe and just world” for all.

Amid the optimism fostered by the fall of communism, global leaders embraced the “revolutionary” new idea of sustainable development – economic progress in harmony with the natural world.

Ian Johnston, msnbc.com

That first Rio conference inspired passive house. Twenty years later, Rio is again the site of the Earth Summit. As a small gesture to help meet the big challenge that still lies ahead…

 we are starting on this day of the 20th anniversary of the first Rio our new PHIUS+ SOURCE NEUTRAL designation as special recognition to those PHIUS+ certified projects that go the extra mile to zero out (plus or minus) their source energy with an appropriately sized active photovoltaic system.

I am working on getting the Smith House upgraded for its 10th anniversary of the groundbreaking coming up in October of this year.

And to all of you who keep fighting the good fight on this front, thank you!

Katrin