All posts by Justin W. Cook

Justin W. Cook is working at the intersection of climate change and the built environment. He led content development for the Low2No competition and is focusing on Low2No as a development model that aims to balance economy, ecology and society through strategic investments and interventions in existing cities.

02. Week in Review

The project team kicked-off 2011 with an intense, but effective meeting at Arup's London offices. Topics discussed ranged from the structural efficiency afforded by different basement layouts to agreeing on a method of energy performance modelling for the block.

Fire planning has emerged as a significant factor influencing schematic design of the block. As has been stated, Sitra has set a timber construction solution as a top priority for the office building, but Finnish fire regulations currently do not allow multi-story timber buildings. The Energy Programme has been working closely with the authorities to expedite changes currently under final review to the fire code with the hopes that final approval will happen in time for our building permit review.

Complications to building massing arise whenever you bring one type of fire classification into contact with another. In other words, timber and concrete buildings do not play nicely together according to the fire code and thus need to be separated into their own areas in the playground. The design team has been looking at ways to overcome what would seem to be an inevitable outcome through smart, hybrid structural and facade solutions that unify the Sitra timber building with its neighbors, and I am quite encouraged. Sketches of the massing and urban character of the block will be revealed during our 08 February event and I will post images here shortly after.

We have also been looking at how to meet our onsite electricity production goals and the early indications suggest that despite the short days in winter, Helsinki's long summer days may allow us to produce as much as 240,000 kWh per year. This will require both rooftop and building integrated solar technologies. Studies are now underway to determine the most appropriate technology for this northern application and how that technology will be integrated into the building just like any other building material. 

All insolation is not created equally.
All insolation is not created equally.

One interesting question emerging out of the solar technology debate is how to adapt a desert technology to a northern climate. Luckily for us, technology is being developed and some are even market ready that seek to fill this void. Most seem to rely on increasing the solar energy capture area to take advantage of diffuse and reflected light, since the efficiency of the various semiconductor materials seems to be more or less stable.

Of course, underlying all of our debate is the brutal reality that if Finland does not enact a feed-in-tariff for solar technologies, the payback period for a PV array will be beyond the life of the building. Cheap, abundant energy has been a topic political priority in Finland for decades as it has been a stimulus to Finland's heavy industries. There is a slow awakening in the government to necessity/long term value of a feed-in-tariff for small producers, but its certainty is anything but guaranteed.

Coming to terms with the economic side of the triple bottom line.
Coming to terms with the economic side of the triple bottom line.

So if a principle of the Low2No model is to seek to balance the competing interests of economy, ecology and society, how do we answer the dismal net present value projections of solar technologies? Ouch! Brain damage. 

January 15th, 2011

Posted by: Justin W. Cook

Category: Weeknotes

01. Week in Review

Happy New Year!

Week 01 of 2011 was surprisingly busy, but mostly with internal processes that are gearing up for events and publications later this winter and spring. For instance, we have come to recognize that ventilation (mechanical versus natural or mixed) is one of the most contentious issues in Finland's sustainable building debate. We have struggled mightily with the conflict between natural ventilation's apparent incompatibility with Finland's strict indoor air quality standards and its promise as a way to reduce building energy demand. 

Studying the effects of massing on energy consumption
Studying the effects of massing on energy consumption

Three elements of a low carbon building: demand reduction; onsite energy generation; and green energy delivery to the site.
Three elements of a low carbon building: demand reduction; onsite energy generation; and green energy delivery to the site.

As we go deeper into the issue, significant fundamental questions have emerged: is Finland's air quality standard too strictly calibrated to an imaginary Finn who demands room temperature be regulated to the tenth of a degree? In other words, as we have seen in healthcare, is statistical analysis getting in the way of physical science (in this case, building physics)? Is worker productivity significantly impacted by fluidity or variation in light and temperature? Is "worker productivity" an outdated relic of Finland's brief industrial era? Do knowledge workers need a nearly silent environment to do their best work?

The answers to these questions cannot be answered by Sitra and thus we are sounding out a possible public event held in the spring where we use Low2No as a test case and examine the impacts of different ventilation, lighting and acoustical conditions on the indoor environment. It seems that for the first Low2No block, our options in this area may be limited. But that does not mean that we are excused from carefully studying current regulations and questioning their performance in the face of larger goals such as improved energy efficiency and facilitating a modern, knowledge-driven workplace. We hope that a public debate will around the conditions/demands we faced and the decisions we made will help push forward the important work of aligning regulatory intent with building performance. 

January 9th, 2011

Posted by: Justin W. Cook

Category: Weeknotes

51-52. Week in Review

Low2No is a product of many motivations. One is a belief that "demonstration projects" are of limited efficacy in terms of their ability to impact business as usual operations. Here is an excerpt from some recent writing:

The Low2No project has emerged out of uneasiness with the long-term value and importance of so called "demonstration projects." Demonstration projects rely on an exemption from important dynamics that limit other projects from achieving the same objectives. Typically, this exemption comes in the form of an unlimited budget. But by not addressing budget or the economic realities of the situation, the demonstration project cannot be replicated as other, future actors will not have an unlimited budget. Therefore Low2No seeks to balance economy, ecology & society in each decision that is made. We recognize that this will not yield the perfect solution in the first instance, but it will help us make real progress toward the perfect solution. 

Experientia future resident workshop
Experientia future resident workshop

This is in part why we are so happy to be working with Experientia. Through their participatory design process, they have been able to cull remarkable insights into the needs of our future residents. With this knowledge, the client and design team can tailor the project's housing and services in a way that will make the block desireable, increasing the chances that the project's principles will be taken up and repeated. 

December 30th, 2010

Posted by: Justin W. Cook

Category: Weeknotes

50. Week in Review

I know it seems hard to believe, but we are still digesting the reports prepared by design team at the end of second design phase.  Three weeks and I think we still have much to do to equip ourselves with a strong understanding of what our options are and what the appropriate path forward is given our desire to balance the competing interests of economy, ecology and equity.  As it turns out, it’s not easy!

Early analysis proves that achieving EPBD compliance (based on various acceptable definitions) will have a significant impact on the project's carbon footprint
Early analysis proves that achieving EPBD compliance (based on various acceptable definitions) will have a significant impact on the project's carbon footprint

Early studies from the design team indicate that there is a positive relationship between pursuing EPBD complaince as an energy strategy, and the block's carbon footprint. The more "to the letter" our project definition of EPBD, the more carbon emissions are mitigated. This makes clear the importance of the political dimension of EPBD. Member States will be left to define the performance level and energy scenarios for buildings on their own. The more aggressive their targets, the more likely Europe can achieve its emissions goals.

With much of the Sitra team on the road this week, there is little to report.  Jukka brings us news of two projects in Finland that will be important benchmarks:

  • The nearly zero energy residential block in Järvenpää:  The Järvenpää house will be completed in 2011 and will have 44 apartments serving elderly people.  Like Low2No, the planners have set compliance with the EU’s EPBD as the energy use standard.  Energy will be provided by ground source heat pumps and photovoltaics.  The project is similar to the Kuopas Building in Kuopio, and both are the first examples of net or nearly zero energy buildings in Finland.  Sitra’s Energy Programme has been actively developing and financing the Järvenpää project.
  • The Synergy House in Helsinki: This project will be the future headquarters for theFinnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and will feature timber frame construction and nearly zero energy consumption.

It is exciting to see so many sustainable building projects being realized in Finland! Something is happening here…

 

December 22nd, 2010

Posted by: Justin W. Cook

Category: Project Updates

49. Week in Review

Carefully measured compromise has been the name of the game this week.  Deep in the DNA of Low2No is an embrace of market pressures, dominant business models and political realities.  We know that complete/unilateral solutions (such as Masdar) and wholesale adoption of entirely new risk models are not plausible expectations for the sustainable redevelopment of our cities.  This distinguishes Low2No as a transitional strategy that works with conditions as they are found on the ground in developed cities and economies, and proposes a pathway forward toward a carbon-balanced built environment.  Low2No is a way to move from here to there when we know that the there is not possible now.

Jätkäsaari (background) and Ruoholahti (foreground) seen from Sitra's 11th floor, December 2010
Jätkäsaari (background) and Ruoholahti (foreground) seen from Sitra's 11th floor, December 2010

As much as we would like to deliver the No-carbon project as the first instance of Low2No, we must keep in mind that this could happen only if we created an exemption from the forces that we claim to embrace.

As such, the client team has agreed on some crucial elements that will guide detailed development of the Low2No block.  First, we will use the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) as a baseline for energy consumption and production targets.  While the final interpretation and implementation of the EPBD will be agreed upon by each Member State over the next 18 months (with 2020 as the implementation target), we have agreed on a rough interpretation for Low2No that we hope will serve as a model for Finland’s internal debate.  This will be discussed more in subsequent posts, but boils down to construction of nearly net-zero energy buildings with some onsite production capacity.

Second, Sitra will pursue a timber-based solution for the office building.  Our commitment to timber stems from a recognition of its untapped potential in the Finnish market, aesthetic and structural qualities, carbon sequestration capacity and its potential for reuse.  The residential buildings will likely be primarily concrete with timber added where possible (again, compromise).

Third, we will continue to develop robust demand management systems and a low carbon commercial and service strategy.  More on this great work later.

Elsewhere, Jukka brings us word that the Ministry of Environment is continuing its work on incorporating timber construction up to 8 floors into the Finnish building code.  It is hoped that draft regulations will be completed soon and the final steps will be finished by Spring 2011, during the final year of the present government.  It may be a little late for Low2No, but we hope the regulatory authorities will see our project as a chance to test coming codes.

Also, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy (TEM) has announced a national center for energy advice.  This is built on work that Sitra’s Energy Programme initiated almost two years ago when it began to finance energy advisory pilot projects.

 

 

December 14th, 2010

Posted by: Justin W. Cook

Category: Weeknotes

48. Week in Review

Labor disputes and heavy snowfall were the dominant factors affecting the Low2No innovation pipeline this week.  Myself and most of the Finnish delegation did manage to reach Garmisch for the final two days of Forum Holzbau.  The message was quite clear: industrialized timber construction has achieved maturity–it is a highly durable and economically competitive alternative to concrete.  We were presented residential projects from around central Europe, Sweden and the UK that were either wholly timber, or a majority timber/concrete hybrid that had achieved significant time and logistical reductions, rapid sales to desirable demographics, and CO2 savings.

Matti Mikkola from Stora Enso Timber based in Helsinki walked through a comparison study recently completed on several 4 to 7 story cross laminated timber (CLT) buildings in different central European and Nordic markets.  Their findings were compelling: while a component-to-component cost comparison reveals a -20% to +200% cost premium of CLT over concrete, the whole building cost for timber was only 3% greater than concrete because of savings from time reduction and collateral benefits such as reduced foundation size.  Matti’s belief is that once the CLT industry begins to standardize production methods and product platforms in the next 2-5 years, timber construction will be highly competitive with concrete.

From a regulatory perspective, Dr. Andreas Neumüller from Holzforschung Austria and Dr. Gerhard Schickhofer from TU Graz see harmonization of European timber construction standards in the next 5 years.  This will allow developers and architects to treat timber as an equal construction method to concrete and steel, without applying for special exemption or approval.

The combined experience of the speakers and attendees was that timber construction:

  • is capable of high capacity, complex structures
  • uses connections that are simple & easy to build & inspect
  • reduces staging & costs through prefabrication
  • improves performance of downstream trades because of flexibility
  • currently competes with a 3-5% premium over concrete
  • attracts desirable consumer groups
  • is sustainable/benefits from a stable, predictable resource supply

And in addition, way down the list, timber buildings generally sequester more carbon than is released during their construction into one of the most durable products made: buildings.  This may not matter to developers, but it is significant because as nations confront the challenge of climate change, they will push their municipalities to favor timber construction as part of a highly efficient building package through regulations and incentives designed to drive down direct and indirect emissions sources.  Now is the time to learn how to build again with timber.

Some of the new timber frame connection technology on display at Forum Holzbau 2010 in Garmisch, DE
Some of the new timber frame connection technology on display at Forum Holzbau 2010 in Garmisch, DE

In other news, the Low2No client team had a two day strategy session on Thursday and Friday to give shape to our decisions that will guide work in the design development phase.  Finding common ground between 3 very different clients is difficult, but we are making progress.  More to come soon!

This week, Jukka Noponen and Sitra’s Energy Programme together with the Tampere Central Region conducted an Urban Growth Boundary workshop.  Robin McArthur, Director of Planning and Development from the regional governing body Metro in Portland, Oregon discussed Portland’s successful sprawl management program.  Sprawl management has again surfaced as an important issue in Finland as its cities grow and rural areas empty out.  But it is also a highly sensitive political issue that most stakeholders have been unwilling to address with real measures.  During the workshop, Jukka saw many similar features between Metro’s management program and Finland’s planning tools that, with some slight reworking could accomplish similar outcomes.

The rest of the team was diving into the Low2No schematic phase documents.  With building plans in hand, Tuula Laitinen has been able to push Low2No’s visual identity with our partners.  Johanna Kirkinen found great interest in the design team’s proposals for the lifestyle/behavior dimension of the Low2No block.  It is clear to everyone that environmental concerns will not be the primary driver of behavior change.  It will have to come from a perception or realization of reduced costs and energy associated risks, improved health and comparative analysis of one’s own energy use with those in their immediate community.  This last part must be done carefully as past experience has shown that more information is not always better.

December 6th, 2010

Posted by: Justin W. Cook

Tags:  

Category: Weeknotes