energy performance

Zero Air Leaks in a Net Zero Home

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Net zero homes are about the details. The accumulation of these details, of these seemingly small changes to the homes’ building process, multiplies the homes’ efficiency and comfort. To build these homes, Green Canopy has cultivated a vast system of checks and balances both originating from within the company and from partners of the company. The team at Green Canopy’s net-zero home in Magnoliarecently completed one such check: the blower door test. 

There are well-known frustrations with homes built in the 70’s and 80’s that were sealed up very tight with little thought put into proper ventilation. Without that proper ventilation, the airtight homes get moldy and begin to rot. When talking about making our homes airtight, people often have reactions associated with these mold-prone homes in the past, but the contemporary phrase in the industry is to "seal up tight and ventilate right." With proper ventilation, we can get a temperature-controlled environment without the negative side effects. The home's structure is set up to last with a Heat Recovery Ventilator that reduces pollen and dust giving the home constant fresh air. The ventilator also takes the stale air from inside the house, recycles the heat, and joins it with fresh air from outside.

In the test, a blower door machine is mounted to an opening such as a door or window.  A large fan located at the lower end of the blower door depressurizes the space behind the machine, and the ACH—air changes per hour—of the building can then be calculated with the help of the blower door’s manometer. Because the room is depressurized, the air is forced in through small cracks in the house's structure that would otherwise be invisible. With the smoke test and other tests, these air leaks can be found and sealed up, and homebuilders can create a more airtight home. 

Most new construction homes do not undergo the blower door test, but those that do usually only manage to reach an ACH of 3 or 4. At completion, Green Canopy’s net-zero homes will have only 1 ACH. The difference is in the timing. Instead of conducting the blower door test when the home is nearly finished as many homebuilders do, Green Canopy enlisted Performance Insulation to conduct it during the framing stage, giving the team the ability to find and fill more of the house's air leaks. The goal is to seal the leaks up tight in the home, then add the proper amount of controlled ventilation to the home.

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With so many of the air leaks in the house filled, less heat is needed to warm it, increasing efficiency and decreasing costs. This one detail, though it may seem insignificant, combines with others to create a home efficient enough to become net-zero after the installation of solar panels. Green Canopy’s goal in building net-zero energy homes is to help spark a transformation toward a more sustainable and resilient housing market.

Solar Powered Homes Charging into the Pacific Northwest

Pioneers like Thomas Edison have been excited for decades about the use of solar power. “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that,” Edison anticipated. Starting this Fall, the first of many Green Canopy's Net Zero Energy homes will be available on the market in Seattle - with a commitment to offering these high-performance homes at a price that is on par with code-built new construction homes.

Green Canopy is a mission driven Portland and Seattle infill homebuilder. The Company has always built resource-efficient homes to a standard far beyond building code requirements, keeping our communities and planet in mind. In order to serve their mission, it is important to continually be changing, improving, and innovating. The Company has been conscious of this, and it is now advancing yet another significant step forward. 

Zero Energy Bills, Less Negative Impact on the Environment
Net Zero Energy homes are revolutionizing green housing. Every Net Zero Energy home is modeled to produce as much power as it consumes over the course of a year using solar energy. They typically look like  other modern and minimal homes except that they come with an abundance of benefits many people don’t realize. The thought of buying a house that is modeled to cover the electricity bill is cool, particularly in hot housing markets that feel hard to keep up with, like Seattle and Portland. By soaking up the sun’s rays these homes generate enough electricity to power the home over the course of the year. Solar panels on each roof are among the many applications that make this possible.
 
Higher Level of Comfort and Less Expensive to Own
Net Zero Energy homes are also more comfortable because their high-performance envelopes (the wall, roof & floor systems) are ultra-efficient; The cold spots and drafts common in simple code-built homes tend to disappear. Furthermore, the advanced appliances and ventilation systems help to ensure evenly displaced temperatures throughout. Due to the intense efficiency and solar power generation, these homes cost much less to operate, offering homeowners, even in the PNW temperate climes, hundreds if not thousands of dollars in savings in their electrical bills.

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Understanding the Challenges and Breaking Through 
As one would expect, building Net Zero Energy homes require a dedication to mastery. Most importantly, the roofs must be designed large enough to fit all the solar panels needed to offset the amount of energy needed. Additionally, most housing envelopes aren’t efficient enough so achieving net zero energy isn’t possible in most existing homes in the PNW climate. For example, the average Seattleite’s home has roughly 1,500 square feet and three floors and consumes about 28,000 kilowatts per year. To fit around 100 solar panels needed to offset the energy consumed by the average heat-leaking, Seattle house, it’s roof would need to be four times larger. However, if a 1,500 square foot Net Zero Energy home consumed </= 8,000 kilowatts a year instead, it would require roughly only 32 panels for the net annual energy consumption to be zero. Getting to this level of efficiency and performance requires a thoughtful and dedicated approach. To accomplish it, Green Canopy had to recalibrate several of its processes and checklists relating to feasibility, designs, estimating and purchasing, and project management.
 
Other builders have risen to the challenge over the years. However, a search on the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, revealed only five (5) of the tens of thousands of homes sold over the last 20 years have claimed to be a Net Zero Energy home. Though custom homeowners have built more Net Zero homes, they very rarely enter the market for sale. The building science and technology needed to make Net Zero Energy homes possible has finally caught up to the times. As a result, these homes will likely be available to buy at a far greater rate than over the last 20 years, and Green Canopy is set on blazing the trail to help transform the market as quickly as possible.
 
Green Canopy itself has built several certified Platinum LEED for homes, Earth Advantage Platinumhomes, Built Green homes, and Net Zero “ready” homes in the past. Net Zero “ready” homes are efficient enough to be Net Zero if the homeowner installs solar panels—the most obvious and expensive part— after buying the home. Additionally, on occasion, a home will be built to offset the electricity use but not the natural gas used for heating, cooking or domestic hot water heating, so the homeowner stills pays for non-renewable energy.  
 
Net Zero homes are the future of home construction and ownership, and Green Canopy is determined to accelerate their arrival on the market. Evidence indicates that Seattle and Portland homebuyers are early adopters, technologically savvy, educated people who care and think about the environment and their long-term, financial investments. The Company’s commitment is to offer Net Zero Energy homes not just to higher-end markets but also to markets that young families and first-time buyers can afford, priced on par with new construction, code-built homes. “We aren’t looking to offer our homes outside of the current market’s range for homes,” Co-Founder, Sam Lai, states. “In every market area, there are run-down homes with single-pane windows and oil heat furnaces that sell for less than average. Likewise, code-built, new construction, well-designed homes with high-quality systems are selling for higher than the average at each price point in the market. We believe our Net Zero Energy homes will demonstrate enough benefit and value to homebuyers that they will be excited to experience the lifestyle, while being able to acquire them within the market range.”

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The New Standard
Green Canopy’s first Net Zero Energy home represents the future for the Company as it rotates its entire pipeline to build only Green Canopy Net Zero Energy homes in the coming months and years ahead. This wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the dedicated team and partners such as Evergreen CertifiedVan Wyck & Porter, and Northwest Electric and Solar. This is also made possible due to the Green Canopy design, purchasing, and project management teams that are so efficient the Company is able to maintain cost control far beyond industry standards. The Green Canopy team is a highly motivated and passionate group that follows a tight, quality-control system performing more than 50 quality inspection checklists throughout the time of construction. This ensures that Green Canopy’s homes are quality built, focused on craftsmanship and sustainability both inside and outside the walls.

For these reasons, Green Canopy Homes is proud to now be able to call themselves today and moving forever forward, Net Zero Energy homebuilders. "Our vision is to help make Net Zero Energy homes the new standard and broadly accessible across the income spectrum." – Aaron Fairchild, CEO.

Green Canopy is a Portland and Seattle urban infill homebuilder, developing environmentally advanced and thoughtful homes for sale to a broad range of communities and income levels since 2009. It is a certified B-Corp company with the impact investing community making up 100% of shareholders in support of the movement. Their mission is to inspire resource-efficiency in the residential market, with a vision to transform homebuilding and urban communities across the nation.

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You Blow my Mind Like a Ductless Mini-Split

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"What speaks to buyers when they are looking for a green or high performance home?" 

Contributed by Sam Lai, CMO for Green Canopy, Inc.

Last Wednesday I was on a panel at the Home Performance Guild of Oregon Conference in front of an audience of performance contractors, energy efficiency organizations, realtors and appraisers.  

My fellow panelists and I were discussing how to help customers understand the value of high performance homes, when Waylon White of Earth Advantage posed this question:

"What speaks to buyers when they are looking for a green or high performance home?" 

Sometimes the best way to answer a question like that is to describe what DOES NOT work. To that end, I recited awful pick-up lines that sound like they belong in a singles bar, but are value propositions for green and high performance homes gone horribly wrong!  

These were my top 5 “worst pick-up lines”  

5. Hello!  I’m really complicated and high maintenance.

4. Pick me!  Or else you will feel guilty the rest of your life.

3. I’ll cost you more than normal, but you’ll be thankful in 10 to 15 years.

2. I’m clearly not easy on the eyes, but I’m good for you.

1. I may not be that big, but I’m really, really, flexible.

Later, in the conference, there was a brilliant idea that cut through the noise of home performance geeks, like myself, whipping out the results of our latest blower door tests.  Fiona Douglas-Hamilton reminded all of us that green, high-performance homes are “simply better homes.”  

Ah, yes, thank you Fiona!  Great reminder.  For us, as we always offer our products at the same price (or more competitively) than other conventional homes.  And, while many of our homeowners did not start looking for a green home before seeing a Green Canopy Home - we hope that all our homeowners continue to feel that their homes are simply better homes. 

Keeping out the Giraffes

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Contributed by Sonja Gustafson:

What is Your Monster?

Last night was a beautiful Halloween evening; the sky was clear, the air crisp, and my neighborhood was alight with various ghosts and goblins going from door to door.   Then today came with gloomy grey skies and drenching rain, and we are faced not with the costumed monsters of our children, but the more terrifying specter of a cold, dark autumn.

This reminds me of a recent podcast I listened to where the narrator was working with his 5-year old daughter to caulk their home’s windows against drafts coming in.  The daughter watched silently as he ran the caulk along the window seams, and as their work progressed, finally asked, “Daddy, do you really think this will keep out the giraffes?”

I love the thought of that girl working out the problem in her head:  there are giraffes that want to come into our home!  Daddy is trying to protect us! But really, how can this silly gummy stuff keep those monstrous animals out of our house?

Maybe we all have huge monsters in our minds that are keeping us from imagining how simple it really is to “keep out the giraffes.”  Or maybe it’s difficult to imagine how something as simple as caulk can make such a big difference in the comfort of a home.  And yet, take a look at the chart below to see how many areas of our home can be made more weather tight with the some simple attention. Each of these represents an opportunity to make your home more comfortable while saving money on utility bill.

Now wielding a caulk gun to ward off the drafts is not the only way to fight the energy monster, but it is one of a number of simple things you can do today to make your home more energy efficient.  In the spirit of easily keeping out the giraffes/monsters out of your home, here are 5 simple things you can do to ward off the cold and save on your energy bills:

5 Things You Can Get Done Today

  1. Buy caulk.  Then read this tutorial on how to fix leaks in your home. (You can schedule the work for this weekend!)

  2. Lower the thermostat on your hot water heater to 120°F.

  3. Install a programmable thermostat for your heating system.

  4. Air dry dishes instead of using your dishwasher’s drying cycle – let them dry overnight tonight!

  5. Use a power strip for your computer accessories, phone chargers, and other “vampire” devices and turn off the strip when you leave the room.

If after completing this list you are ready to take on more energy monsters, you should consider having an energy audit conducted on your home to more thoroughly determine ways to make your home perform to its best. (Seattle City Light customers can get a discounted audit here) You can contact your local home performance expert (Washington users can search here to find an energy auditor) to help you with next steps.

And then you’ll be keeping out those giraffes

The Energy Rebound Effect

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Contributed by Canuche Terranella:

Peter and Kristi live in a 1915 un-insulated Craftsman house.  In the first months in their new home they kept their thermostat at 68 degrees.  In December, with their first energy bill, they learned this behavior costs $350/month. Oh the financial pain!

Energy efficiency improvements are motivated by pain.  Energy pain comes in two varieties: financial and comfort.  Most energy models are based on customers like Peter and Kristi making energy improvements to reduce wallet pain.  As soon as they’ve insulated their home they will continue to keep their thermostats at 68 degrees but consume less energy.  These models point to great reductions in energy demand based on customers with financial pain installing cost effective weatherization and insulation measures.  If utility companies can use rebates and incentives to encourage customers like Peter and Kristi to invest in improvements to their homes it will be as good as investing in new power generation equipment to keep up with demand.   The assumption is that the pain of high utility bills will motivate investment in energy efficiency improvements and decrease energy demand.

Another possibility, however, is that their twins, frugal Keith and Patsy, might choose to put off the efficiency improvements and instead turn the thermostat down to 50 degrees and put on a hat and scarf for dinner.  This choice shifts the pain from financial to temperature discomfort, a challenge for the traditional energy models.  When utilities predict savings from improvements to homes incentivized by rebates they don’t usually predict what happens when Keith and Patsy finally make energy improvements and take off their sweaters.

After saving for a year frugal Keith and Patsy install attic insulation and weatherize their home. Now they can turn the thermostat up to 68 degrees.  Their energy bills are a much more reasonable $100/ month but they are consuming more energy than they were when the thermostat was at 50 degrees.

This results in what building scientists call the rebound effect. The rebound effect describes the difference between the actual society wide energy savings after energy efficiency improvements are made and energy savings as predicted in the lab models. Sometimes the rebound effect can be so large as to even result in an increase in energy used across the society. The UK Energy Research Center studied this effect and pointed to human behavior as the key component of the rebound effect. While seemingly counterintuitive, the examples above make the point clearly for residential customers.

The commercial impact is even more striking. If a local bike manufacturer invests in a new, more efficient, welding process and can therefore produce bike frames more profitably, then it will likely build more bikes. More bikes mean greater electricity use and a net increase in demand to the utility.

Does this mean we as a society should stop investing in energy efficiency? I’d say no.   The bike manufacturer is now making more bikes every month for less energy per unit. More bike production means more economic activity for the region.  Peter and Kristi have a higher quality of life in their home and are likely more productive members of society as a result. The utility company increased the efficiency of the energy used in both cases. Overall the demand for energy may be higher but the benefit to society per unit energy used is improved. Incentive decisions must measure society benefit in addition to energy savings to decide which new efficiency programs to fund.

G2B Homes makes smart efficiency improvements to homes to help families find the sweet spot where energy savings and comfort create lower operating costs and a higher quality of life.

A Healthy Tension

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Post contributed by Aaron Fairchild:

Doing good for society and the planet and being profitable at it isn’t easy, nor does it come about without a healthy dose of daily tension. At G2B Ventures, the tension we deal with comes with our mission, which is to drive energy efficiency in existing buildings to the greatest extent possible while continuing to make solid, for-profit, self-sustaining decisions. Last week a segment on G2B and our program of buying distressed homes and driving energy efficiency was aired on our local NPR affiliate, KPLU. The day after the segment I received some emails that challenged us on our efficiency work. They didn’t doubt our approach; they challenged the need to replace the windows and tightened up the home in West Seattle to prevent leaks.

Whenever you put yourself out there in the way we have done so far, you have to be open to feedback and criticism. G2B is not only open to it, we encourage and welcome it. So I thought I would put the email discussion out there and available for everyone to understand what goes into these sorts of decisions. So without divulging the source, the concern with windows relates to the imbedded carbon associated with simple replacement verses refurbishment as witnessed through a life cycle assessment. In many cases the embedded carbon associated with replacing windows can be much higher than the efficiency gained through new windows. The second concern is the indoor air quality issues that come from and older house that has been tightened up and is not well ventilated, potentially causing mold/rot problems. The G2B response to these concerns can be read below:

“Restoring the original windows in the West Seattle home was not an option. We had five different types of windows from different vintages, with many of those cracked or not sealing due to the house settling over time and through multiple earth quakes over its 100+ year life. Once the house was lifted and leveled-out, at least one window broke in the process and many others became dysfunctional and couldn't open preventing egress. We are happy to point out that in our next house we will receive Built Green Certification and dramatically improved energy performance, while NOT replacing the windows.

"As you know, “sealing up air gaps” is a common phrase used in building performance, but obviously it’s not as cut & dried as running around the outside of the house with caulk guns and 2part foam.  Using the West Seattle house as an example: exterior rigid foam acts as an additional drainage plane and reduces thermal bridging between framing members, but horizontal seems are loose, ‘Z’ flashed with building paper for moisture vapor escape.  We had ship lap for exterior wall sheathing to deal with, so the wall needing to breathe is one of multiple problems to address.  Attics are vented of course, and special care was taken to fir out the vaulted ceilings to create additional space for ventilation.  Insulation is largely blown cellulose.  And finally, airtight barrier is at the drywall with air sealing at light switch and outlet boxes, penetration & physical air sealing in joist bays, below the knee walls if blocking is missing.  You are correct that mold/moisture is an issue in old homes, and frequently this occurs due to condensation at the cold/hot junctures inside the wall cavity due to a lack of insulation.

"G2B Homes does NOT approach each project with a cookie cutter and pre-planned approach. This is the challenge with existing building rehabilitation. We try to be thoughtful and deliberate and in addition to the G2B institutional knowledge we work with some of the best residential building science folks in town to help inform each project.

"I hope this helps address/alleviate concerns. We are very dedicated to this discussion and have it on-going with every project. Our intention is to be mindful of these issues and to transparently create thoughtful solutions. We want to set the bar as high as we can, but we may not always get it right. We are human, makes mistakes, and as you know the market will only allow for so much efficiency to be profitably pushed into projects.”

Green Trifecta in Motion

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Post contributed by Aaron Fairchild:

I got back from the West Coast Green building conference recently, and I continue to be struck by issues of contrast. Green “do-gooders” and green “capitalists” mingle about with policy wonks like one big happy family. I have written about this contrast before. But what I continue to find is that, while tension still exists, we are for the most part coming together nicely. There are a lot of people out there who have been fighting for the environment and changing their behaviors for a long time. Some of these folks have a proprietary feeling regarding issues of the environment, but the majority holds open their arms to welcome in the mainstream. I see the convergence of three major sectors around a new green economic imperative or paradigm on the horizon: for-profit business, non-profit, and government.

On the government side, I had the opportunity to talk to a small business owner at West Coast Green named Nathan Doxsey who wanted his city to do more to support sustainability. Nathan owns a small real estate company in the city of Austin, and is focused on marketing Green homes. Nathan was instrumental in helping the city adopt a brilliant ordinance requiring most all residential homes to have an energy audit done during the purchase and sale of a home. Energy audits performed at the point of sale is just smart policy. Energy is a public good and the use and application of energy affects everyone in society. It is already a regulated resource and the thoughtful use and monitoring of energy should not be left entirely up to the free market. The arguments pro and con couldn’t be exhausted in one or even two essays. Needless to say, at G2B Ventures we are promoting a similar policy for the city of Seattle.

At West Coast Green I also listened to panel discussions that were full of good intention and short on actionable ideas. Those panel discussions brought me back a few years, because they had the activist feel without creating pathways to sustainability through profitability. However, I also met Adam Boucher at West Coast Green. His resume need only read: “Entrepreneur with a golden revenue model; eco-capitalist.” Adam is creating financing solutions at the project level in addition to bringing solar panel to over 100 homes in southern California. Go Adam!

More recently, this afternoon I was at a round table discussion at McKinstry sponsored by Climate Solutions talking about Federal regulation. That was the trifecta of for- and non-profit coming together with federal and state policy makers around the issue of climate change and cap and trade. I have rarely seen such as sense of possibility and urgency as I witnessed in that gymnasium.

In meeting after meeting, I have become more and more convinced the world is changing as you read this. All sectors of our society are pivoting toward green issues. Green had become code for being environmentally and socially responsible. Green equals awareness, but it shouldn’t only equal non-profit “do-gooder” or government bureaucrat. The free, public markets and making money is part of the economic green transformation. Note Apple rejecting the US Chamber of Commerce for its stance on climate change. Note Wal-Mart’s efforts to create a more sustainable supply chain. Note Daniel Pink’s video,  “the surprising science of motivation.” Green gives us a purpose to our businesses and makes those businesses more productive and profitable as a result. The green revolution is not only being televised, it is being brought to you in every sector of your life.

For Profit and Energy Efficiency

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Post contributed by Aaron Fairchild:

I was recently invited by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to present in Louisville, Kentucky at a symposium on “Green” Finance Investing in Sustainable, Energy Efficient Developments. I was very honored to participate and to share what we are working on at G2B Ventures. You can download a PDF of the agenda here. There were a lot of other very cool programs presented, like The Babylon Project out of Babylon New York, and Enterprise’s Green Communities program.

I headed to Louisville with a healthy dose of humility, expecting to be an outlier from the speaker’s podium, and left there with the impression that I was indeed an outlier, but only because I was one of the only speakers talking about for-profit approaches to improving our existing residential building stock. In fact, G2B was the only group represented on stage with a for-profit solution to improving the energy efficiency of existing single family housing. As a result, I had a great time sharing what we were working on and enjoyed several questions and discussions about how to implement a program similar to ours in Louisville and beyond.

I also left Louisville with a new outlook on the city. They are making big strides toward energy efficiency, and Kentucky is working on retrofitting 10,000 homes with their Clean Energy Corps! I had the opportunity to visit a very progressive and fun hotel / museum, 21C, and would recommend the city to anyone interested in visiting. Thanks for the hospitality Louisville and thanks to the team at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Green Goals Matter

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Post contributed by Sonja Gustafson, LEED AP:

This week the New York Times published an article entitled “Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label," discussing the energy under-performance of buildings rated with the LEED system. (BTW, LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, so energy matters!) The article cites various examples of LEED-certified buildings falling short of predicted energy efficiency and notes industry criticism of the lack of accountability in tracking actual energy performance.

I’m glad to see the discussion moving this direction, as any pragmatist will tell you that it’s all about how a building performs according to its green goals, not about some shiny LEED plaque on the wall. I do want to offer two comments about this discussion, however, that provide some perspective on the role of LEED in the building industry.

My first point is that the organization that oversees the LEED system, the non-profit United States Green Building Council, is not fighting the criticism, but in the past 2 years has been tracking the performance of buildings and provided much of the data that pointed out the deficiencies. As a result, last week the USGBC launched its Building Performance Initiative, which not only tracks energy efficiency but provides feedback to building owners to help address performance gaps. It also provides outreach and education to help architects and engineers understand energy issues before they begin building design. Tracking energy performance is now part of the conversation, and I’m glad to see it stick.

My other point has to do with why a building owner may elect to get LEED certification. “Green” covers a wide spectrum, and although energy use is certainly one of the most important (and required) components of LEED, there are other ways to reduce carbon emissions in building green. For example, a building owner might choose to locate her project in an urban setting in order to provide building users/tenants greater access to public transportation and services. Or, if the building is a redevelopment, it might conserve enormous amounts of energy by using materials and infrastructure that are already embodied in the existing building. Energy use by a building might be lower if the project were built from the ground up on undeveloped suburban land, but the carbon footprint might in fact be higher than a redevelopment due to increased commuting, parking needs, and greater need for virgin materials. Other buildings may choose indoor air quality as a top priority which will require additional energy consumption in ventilation systems. Green goals matter, so looking at a green building may require looking not only at energy consumption, but at the larger spectrum of green.

I’m glad to see the scrutiny being paid to LEED’s (ahem) leadership of energy performance. This rising tide of accountability will float all boats at a new level and perhaps even generate discussion on the variety of issues that matter in green buildings.