Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Henry Gifford on LEED Buildings

Henry Gifford, dubbed "The Boiler Man," by the New Yorker, is co-founder of Architecture & Energy Limited and a graduate of the first PassivHaus class in the US.  Together with architect Chris Benedict, Henry has designed and overseen construction of over seventy energy efficient buildings in New York, since 1996.  PassivHaus, or Passive House, is a rigorous, voluntary energy efficiency standard which originated in Germany in 1988, and typically reduces energy requirements by 90% in new homes, resulting in excellent comfort conditions in winter and summer.  PassivHaus methods can also be applied to non-residential new construction.

I caught up with Henry last weekend, while he was on the road, away from New York City.  In this first half of our two part interview, Henry discusses some of the problems with current US green certification standards.  In the second part, which I'll post tomorrow, he talks about PassiveHaus.

JW:  Tell us a bit about your background in energy efficient design and how it ties in with the green movement, particularly with regard to small spaces and tiny houses.

HG:  I started working on energy efficiency when I bought some apartment houses in Manhattan's East village when I was twenty, and wondered what I could do to lower my fuel bills.  I found that nobody seemed to have much of an idea, so I figured it out as I went along, reading what little I could, and soon started a company specializing in saving energy in apartment houses.  What I do is a goal of the green movement, but being "green" doesn't necessarily save energy, so there is not much overlap.  My work on apartment house heating systems makes apartments much more healthy to live in, but does not overlap with anything a tenant can do.  Likewise, it is different from small houses, where the insulation and airtightening are usually more important than the mechanical systems.

JW:  It may come as a surprise to many people that a LEED certified building is not necessarily energy efficient.  Please explain how that can be, and do you think LEED buildings will be more energy efficient in the future?

HG:  I had hoped that as soon as it became widely known that LEED buildings average higher energy use than comparable buildings, LEED would get their act together and change.  But, sad to say, they have instead circled the wagons and keep insisting that LEED buildings save energy, and say the solution is more of what they are already doing.  So, I doubt LEED buildings will become significantly energy efficient, especially now that there are 70,000 people certified to do something they don't know how to do.  The USGBC has promised multi peer-reviewed studies showing LEED buildings do save energy, and with their multimillion dollar research budget I don't doubt those studies will appear, but they should be viewed with all the skepticism due any study whose results are announced in advance.

JW:  There are other green certification programs now competing with LEED, such as Green Globes.  But is it true that Green Globes is heavily backed by the building industry, because LEED only allows Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified lumber and soon won't allow any construction materials that contain vinyl (such as vinyl windows and flooring) or formaldehyde (such as plywood, particle board and OSB) in their buildings?

HG:  My biggest fear is that a few years from now LEED will have convinced people that large numbers of buildings are as efficient as they can be, and therefore the only choices are to give up our creature comforts or have more wars [over oil].

JW:  How do you come down on these issues that seem to pit easier, cheaper, more energy efficient construction against sustainable, non-toxic materials choices; and do you see a way forward for a standardized certification program that considers all aspects of green design and sacrifices none?

HG:  At this point in the history of the world, especially the US, attention paid to sustainable materials serves as a distraction that diverts attention away from energy efficiency.  Things that can't be measured exactly, such as embodied energy, relative healthiness of materials, etc., are lumped together with things that can be measured quite precisely, such as water and energy use, all while ignoring important issues such as how much material is used, how it is placed in a wall, etc., which usually takes skill to understand, thus is widely ignored.  I pay attention to healthy materials, but since nobody should put poisons in a building, I don't look for anyone to pat me on the back for doing what everyone should already do, especially when it helps avoid looking at what is by far a building's largest impact on the environment – energy use.

Interview continues in tomorrow's post.

Photo of Henry Gifford by Travis Roozée.

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