Posts Tagged energy efficiency

First Light House Third in USA Ken Collins Oct 03

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A few months back I wrote about the First Light House that was too have competed at the Solar Decathlon in Washington DC.

The First Light House team in front of their house in Washington DC (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

The First Light House team in front of their house in Washington DC (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

As a quick refresher, the US Department of Energy web site summarises the competition thus — ’The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate (University to us Kiwi readers) teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

It has been reported over the weekend that the team from Victoria University has come in third place overall!! A fantastic result considering they were up against some very highly respected universities from the US and around the world.

In the process, the team were placed 1st for Engineering, which is fantastic because Victoria University doesn’t have an engineering school, 1st equal for Hot Water and 1st equal for Energy Balance, as

Mike Moore visits, photo from the First Light web site

Mike Moore visits, photo from the First Light web site

well as 2nd for Architecture and 3rd for Market Appeal. For a description of what these mean, see the US DoE descriptions here.

This result has garnered coverage in international media and is now making news in NZ. It has been a demonstration of what is achievable with products that are commercially available in this country. Although at this stage the up front capital cost is still very high, but hopefully that will drop to the point of common affordability in the coming years.

Helen Clark visits, photo from the First Light web site

Helen Clark visits, photo from the First Light web site

The Dominion Post reported today that — ’The Wellington team will spend the next four days packing the house up and then it will be shipped back to New Zealand. The bach has been purchased by a Christchurch woman who is planning to purchase land somewhere in the South Island for the bach, for which she paid $326,000 at auction.’

For those who want to know more, see the First Light House web site, and this is a direct link to a video explaining the architecture of the ’bach’.

Pre-Designing Your Lab for Sustainability Ken Collins Aug 15

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VUW Coastal Ecology Lab

VUW Coastal Ecology Lab

A short time ago I was reading this article in the R&D Mag online. Titled ’Pre-designing your lab for sustainability’ it makes a number of relevant points when thinking about laboratory design. Although it appears to be aimed at university type projects the points it makes is certainly relevant to all laboratory facilities of all types. Especially where it confirms that laboratories can consume up to 50% more energy than office buildings of a comparable size.

As issues of sustainability, energy use, lifetime costs and environmental impact continue to increase in order of importance, the earlier these issues are discussed and incorporated into the working brief for any new or re-developed facility the easier they are to be realised in the completed building.

In the article it talks about the US Green Building Council ’LEED’ programme, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, as an internationally-recognized green building certification system. In New Zealand we have the NZ Green Building Council which runs the Green Star certification system for commercial buildings. This provides a similarly recognised way assessing and certifying buildings in the New Zealand context.

Certainly in my experience as a laboratory architect I would have to agree that the earlier all aspects of the laboratory design are incorporated into the brief the better the end result will be. This includes the need to carry out a full review of current and future needs, an analysis of space utilisation, commonality review where the ability to share resources is looked at, as well as consideration of the environmental conditions required.

The more information you have about your actual needs versus your nice to haves the more efficient the final result will be. Not only for the size and operation of the building but also for the science and functions carried out within this environment.

In the past we have conducted these reviews for our client as a part of the briefing process. Especially the need to establish the size, relationships and environmental conditions the spaces need. Equally we have worked with a number of clients who have the staff and expertise to carry out these sorts of reviews and analysis themselves as a part of their planning process.

Inside the Coastal Ecology Lab

Inside the Coastal Ecology Lab

However, what has become very apparent is that you need the right people with the right experience (or ability) to do this pre-work. Whether it be outside consultants or in-house staff, the biggest impediment to the success of a project has been the quality of the data that is used to inform the brief, that ultimately flows on into the facility design. Add into this a layer of energy and building efficiency and the importance of pre-design and preliminary design is increased.

As a result we have developed a very robust and comprehensive briefing process, which includes questionnaire sheets to ensure as much information as possible is extracted out of the client’s head and onto paper, so it can inform the design.

As I sit here watching the snow fall in central Wellington, one example of this comes to mind, which included thinking a bit outside the box,. The Coastal Ecology Laboratory for Victoria University, sits on the south coast, overlooking Cook Strait. Here they run numerous experiments using sea water inside the facility, which is pumped straight out of the sea across the road. This gave us the opportunity to install the first commercial sea water heat recovery system. Recycled seawater from the laboratory experiments is circulated through the heat pump to recover energy, which is then used in radiators throughout the building. Combined with other smart design features, the energy consumption is reduced by over a third.

Lab overlooking Cook Strait

Lab overlooking Cook Strait

At least with this system, it won’t shut down in extreme cold like heat pump air conditioning systems have a habit of doing.

The best advice is to ensure that you allocate enough resources to get the information needed to make informed decisions on the brief and design of the facility. It is a hang of a lot cheaper to incorporate features or make changes in the design process than it is when the building is half completed, or even worse, having to put up with issues that create operational problems for the lifetime of the building.

First Light on Energy Efficient Bach Ken Collins Jun 10

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First Light House render

A computer render of the First Light House, from the FirstLight web site

Its not often that Wellington City Council allows a bach (crib to you southerners) to be built at Frank Kitts Park on Wellington’s waterfront.

However, before Waterfront Watch get too alarmed, this construction was the live demonstration / test of the First Light house, developed and built by Victoria University School of Architecture students. This is their entry to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 — the only entry, ever, from the southern hemisphere.

The Solar Decathlon is run every two years, held in the National Mall of Washington DC, and involves 20 university teams competing over 10 criteria to demonstrate they have created the best clean-energy dwellings, by building solar-powered houses that feature cost-effective, energy-efficient construction, that incorporates energy-saving appliances and renewable energy systems.

This is a highly prestigious event to be invited to, let alone to hopefully win. It is a challenging exercise that not only provides hands-on training, it also inspires innovation and research, and provides a practical demonstration of the many benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

A group from our office visited the display a few weeks ago and we were genuinely impressed at the level of detail the students have gone to, and at some of the innovative thinking behind it all.

First Light House at Frank Kits Park

First Light House at Frank Kits Park, photo from the FirstLight web site

The contest is not to create a small windowless box, but inspiring architecture. This is expressed by the decathlon categories, which cover architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance.

In this respect the kiwi team have created a modern interpretation of the iconic bach, complete with living, dining and sleeping spaces, home entertainment system, full kitchen, shower and laundry.

The bach features R6 insulation in the walls, as opposed to the more usual R2.6 installed in most new houses in NZ. Triple glazing in timber frames, for thermal bridging reasons. Reverse cycle heat pump that is ducted into rooms, solar hot water heating, and an array of photovoltaic panels to provide power. The bach will be connected to the grid, but it will have a two way meter, with the idea being to have either zero or negative power usage during the competition.

Even with a mighty big skylight in the centre and big folding doors for that lovely indoor/outdoor flow we all hold dear, the inside temperature only lost 1.5 degrees during one particularly frosty night, without any heat input.

Apart from having all of the energy efficient features, the bach also needs to be demountable so that it can be transported half way round the world, and back again. That even means thinking about the timber cladding, where Canadian Cedar was used to avoid it deforming due to the different humidity in the northern hemisphere, and hidden fixings used (from behind the boards) not only so demountable panels could be made, but also to stop a thermal bridge at each nail or screw point.

To show that the buildings are functional, the team must host two dinner parties and a movie night during the competition, including all of the cooking and washing up. Plus they must wash and dry a load of clothes in less than 3 hours. In conjunction with Leap Ltd they have developed a hot water drying cupboard that works by using heated water pumped through a heat exchanger to heat the air inside the cupboard. Combined with hot water filled rails, the system dries the clothes quickly while a fan extracts humid air from the cupboard. The dryer uses only a small amount of energy to power the fan and the remainder is powered by solar hot water.

While the team have not announced how much this bach has cost to build (and they certainly have a deservedly large corporate backing to make it happen), all of the technology, control systems, and building systems are commercially available in NZ. However I suspect that the capital cost of the technology would not be palatable to most people looking to build a home at the moment, especially when it is scaled up to suit an average size house. That is not to say that this will be the case in the future, and hopefully the near future. I think we all look forward to the time when these systems and technologies are run of the mill, and comparatively affordable.

You can follow the Victoria University team’s progress at

Energy creep…more energy efficient homes don’t necessarily mean people use less energy Ken Collins Apr 23


New Scientist magazine ran a brief report on research into energy use in houses after they were made more energy efficient. Conducted in the UK, it highlights that after insulation, double glazing and energy efficient heating is installed the amount of energy used is still close to the old levels, prior to the improvements.

The article says that some people who have made their houses more energy efficient are more likely to indulge in small excesses — turning up the heating or keeping it on for longer. Kevin Lomas of Loughborough University, UK — who was part of the research team that carried out the surveys — is quoted as saying:

’…..often they are more concerned about comfort than saving energy.’

Or, perhaps they think that because their house is more energy efficient they can indulge in being more comfortable and still save energy.

Whatever the reasons, is this the law of unintended consequences at work? Is it human nature to use as much energy as it takes to be comfortable, to the point that it hurts the wallet? Does having more energy efficient homes actually reduce energy use significantly, or does it just allow us to be more comfortable?

Certainly there have been media reports of people installing energy efficient heat pumps and then getting power bills twice what they were before. That is because they ran these things all day and all night thinking there were cheap to run. Yes, heat pumps are cheap to run, but they still cost a lot when you run them all day every day.

By way of example, one of the guys in the office was talking about how the nights are getting colder. It wasn’t cold enough for him to be bothered to light his wood burner, so he put on a jumper. Later in the night he heard the neighbours heat pump going. So, was the use of heating based on a heat pump being too easy to turn on, for instant reward?

The point is that the highly publicised and popular schemes to insulate older homes in NZ may backfire a little, in that not nearly as much energy will be saved as anticipated, or worse still even more energy is used because of an efficiency perception.

The relative merits of various energy sources to heat homes was provided graphically by Right House recently. Their business is to provide advice on energy efficient home design and performance, as well as individual products.

They show comparisons on various types of energy and their costs for NZ conditions. Interestingly enough, fire wood is the cheapest fuel per kWh of heat by far and the cheapest cost to run per year, despite it being the least efficient.

Electricity on the other hand is the third highest cost per unit, but is the most efficient at turning energy into warmth. The result is that a heat pump is also has the cheapest yearly running cost, making it the same as firewood.

heating-cost-comparison Fuel-Prices


Therefore the amount of energy required to heat a home comfortably is a combination of selecting the right heating method for the size and style of the house, as well as how the occupants use the house, and how ’comfortable’ they want to be.

However, a noticeable trend is the significant shift to using electricity as the energy source. In NZ it is perceived as being clean and green with our significant use of  hydro and geothermal generation.

NZ is already under pressure with the need for more generation and no-one wants new wind turbines or hydro power stations in their back yard, let alone nuclear. But with the ever increasing move away from burning things to provide heat, to switching things on, the pressure to provide more generation may force our hand.

We may end up needing to burn things to allow us to switch things on. It’s all a matter or perception really.

Should we be reducing building insulation to improve energy efficiency? Ken Collins Apr 22

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energy efficiencyI recently read an article on the cost of reducing our carbon footprint to pre-1990 levels. It suggested that the actual cost to consumers would be minimal, adding only a few percent to daily consumables. That is except for air travel, which would jump 150%. In effect they tried to debunk the myth that taxing the use of carbon and reducing the amount of carbon used is highly costly.

Reading towards the end, their assumptions were based on two significant developments. First that all vehicles would be electric powered. And second that almost all power worldwide is generated by renewable or nuclear sources. i.e. no gas or coal fire stations.

This got me thinking about assumptions we all make when it comes other things, like the energy use in buildings.

Conventional wisdom suggests that we put stacks of insulation into buildings so they cost less to heat. However, on a recent office building project the services engineer identified that the greatest energy use, and therefore cost, was not in heating the office, but in cooling it!

With large areas of glass, and a lot of electrical equipment, the heat load the building was absorbing meant that it needs a lot of cooling to keep it comfortable.

Their recommendation was to actually reduce the amount of insulation to let heat escape!

It came down to a smarter approach where the correct glass was needed to limit the heating value of the sun, and putting the insulation in the right places, with the right amount, so as not to loose too much heat, but not retain too much either.

This was contrary to the standard models used to determine insulation in NZ buildings, which takes a simplistic blanket approach.

The only thing now is for the cost of the technical calculations to come down to be within reach of the average budget. Thermal modelling of individual buildings from services engineers is still an expensive business, where the cost often outweighs the benefits, even if this more intelligent and detailed approach can save on both building cost and operating cost.

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