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Tompkins Weekly 10-1-2012

By Brent Katzmann

The other evening I was walking to my car on the west end. It was the first really brisk night of the season and felt fabulous after our hot, dry summer. The air was lightly scented with the smell of a good wood fire. Someone nearby was looking for a little warmth to take the edge off the night chill.

While many of us have a fondness for the fall temperature shifts and for the simple pleasure of a wood fire, it occurs to me that it is in these transitional months from summer to fall and winter to spring when a home’s performance gets tested more than one might think. In the dead of winter, it’s almost expected that the furnace will run more than not as it works to keep our homes steadily comfortable against the cold and wind. And if we doubt it, the utility bill that seems to find us in January makes it quite clear: yes, you’re using more energy now.

But what of these days when it’s 70s outside and 40s at night? How long does it take for the house to cool to an uncomfortable level? And when will the next day’s warmth make heating no longer necessary? In my experience, a house that is built well, or improved with indoor comfort as the primary goal, seems to ride these swings with relative ease. Through the right balance of thermal envelope design, interior mass, passive heating and ventilation, these homes maintain their comfort through the night and recover lost heat in the day with no new energy inputs, no firing up of the boiler, no fire in the wood stove.

Building science, and the mechanical systems that heat and cool our homes have evolved at a relatively rapid clip in recent years. Technologies and techniques that would have earned Energy Star status just a half dozen years ago will barely meet minimum energy code requirements in NYS today. Shifting climate patterns are bringing into question the practice of designing around the heating load and whether equal attention might need to be paid to cooling demands in our climate. Dry weather may challenge our well’s capacity to recharge, causing us to rethink water catchment and re-use systems. Dryer, sunnier weather [1]and increased wind may shift the economies of these renewable energy technologies even more favorably than incentives and production efficiencies already have.

Determining how we can start to adapt to a changing climate begins by looking at what is happening today, here in Tompkins County, in terms of advancing home performance. There are many opportunities to do this, beginning with the annual Green Buildings Open House.

Green Buildings Open House returns October 13-14

Every year since 2002, the Ithaca Green Building Alliance and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County have worked together to provide opportunities to learn about and experience a wide range of building methods, materials, equipment and technologies in use in homes throughout our area. On Saturday and Sunday, October 13 and 14, 22 area home owners will once again generously open their houses to the public.

This year’s tour includes many new sites that reflect not only technological advances, but new thinking in land use straDeVoe Earthship in Freeville Photo Credit: Courtney DeVoetegies, designing for multiple chemical sensitivities, and building to Passive House and Net Zero standards. There are two homes built following the Earthship model popularized in the Southwest, using rammed earth-filled tires and solar spaces; conventional homes that have undergone deep energy retrofits in pursuit of a zero energy bill; and homes made predominantly from local, abundant materials: straw bales, timbers, clay and stone.

There will be homes from TrFox-Zifchock residence Photo Credit: Claire Hope Foxumansburg to Caroline, Lansing to Danby, Enfield to Freeville, with half of the homes open each day from 10-to 4. At each site, homeowners, volunteers and builders will be available to answer your questions and talk about the objectives, motivations and outcomes of the choices they’ve made. Information about the homes, including a guide to the various features and technologies and a map of their locations can be found at ccetompkins.org/gb-open-house. Admission bracelets for the entire weekend are just $5 and are available in advance at Cornell Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Avenue, Ithaca or at the following retailers:  GreenStar (Buffalo & Meadow), Home Green Home (on the Commons).

As climate patterns shift, will our homes need to adapt?

Once again, the weekend will start with a provocative presentation and discussion about green building, on Friday evening, October 12 at 7pm. This year’s topic: How will shifting climate patterns influence our approach to designing, building and living in our homes? This will be a moderated panel discussion with a local climate change scientist, building science specialist and residential designer, with opportunity for audience engagement. For more information, visit ccetompkins.org/gb-open-house. This event will kick off a year-long exploration of this topic by the Ithaca Green Building Alliance. Be sure to keep informed of the group’s progress by visiting ithacagreenbuilding.org

Brent Katzmann is a founder of the Ithaca Green Building Alliance, green home designer, and green real estate specialist with Warren Real Estate in Ithaca.


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