ZETA Communities on NPR


As I was listening to the radio this morning, I heard a story about Bay Area company ZETA Communities…

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As Population, Consumption Rise, Builder Goes Small

The planet may not feel any different today, but there are now 7 billion people on it, according to the United Nations.

That number will continue to rise, of course, and global incomes are likely to rise as well. That means more cars and computers, and bigger homes: the kinds of things Americans take for granted. It’s that rise in consumption that has population experts worried…

In an industrial park outside of Sacramento, Calif., there’s a factory inside what looks like an old airplane hangar.

Zeta Communities builds modular homes here. Project manager Scott Wade says they’re not like “stick-built” homes — “stick-built meaning they build it one piece at a time,” Wade says, “whereas we build it an assembly at a time.”

In cities, modules can be stacked to make a new generation of efficient buildings. At Zeta headquarters, architect Taeka Takagi rolls out a blueprints with one of Zeta’s prototypes.

“It is a micro studio,” she says. “The units are under 300 square feet.”

You can read or listen to the entire story on the NPR website.

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You can also watch videos of a unit being built in the ZETA factory and a unit being installed on our website here.

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Alex Wilson, Founder of EBN – Part 2


On Tuesday, September 28, I was in the audience at the Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco as Alex Wilson, Founder and Executive Editor of Environmental Building News, gave a presentation about misguided pursuits in green building. He covered all-glass buildings, building-integrated wind turbines, and residential ground source heat pumps.

The post below consists of Part 2 of my record of the presentation – building-integrated wind turbines. All portions are included in chronological order. Read Part 1 here.

An ellipsis (…) indicates that I was not able to capture the words or thoughts skipped. The presentation is transcribed as accurately as possible – punctuation choices are mine. I also added any photos or images.

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I’ll move on to another issue … the idea of putting wind turbines on buildings. I started digging into this a few years ago … Going into it I had some skepticism about wind turbines in buildings, but I thought that as I got more into it, I’d get more enthusiastic. But what happened was that the more I dug into it, the harder it was to get data … I wrote an article titled “The Folly of Building-Integrated Wind”. After this article came out, I was interviewed by Melissa Block from NPR … I pointed out in the interview that for decades I’ve been a strong proponent of wind energy, but I feel that we need to be building wind farms where there’s lots of wind. But if someone builds a better mousetrap, I’ll be the first one to get excited about it …

So there are mostly small system that are being done on buildings, this is a big one – Bahrain World Trade Center … 225 kW wind turbines by Norwin … harvesting wind coming off the Persian Gulf which is very consistent directionally … but I believe that if these were effective, the architect and owner would want to boast about it, instead of not releasing any information about it.

Bahrain World Trade Center (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Aerotecture, in Chicago … couldn’t get any data from them.

The only data I could find was from the UK, 25 installations.

The issues are several-fold … First, the benefits. Get a tall building, we know it’s windier up high … The electricity gets used right in the building … plus it makes a statement that you care about renewable energy and benefitting the environment. The problems are that we find the wind on top of buildings is very turbulent … wind turbines don’t like spiraling eddies. Next, the noise and vibration. Buildings, especially steel-framed commercial buildings, transmit vibrations through the superstructure … if you read the fine print of AeroVironment, they recommend them only on masonry buildings … Also the safety issue and the perception of safety … wonder if a building like the Bahrain World Trade Center, if the insurers in this country would have allowed them to put wind turbines on building where there’s the possibility of a blade coming off … like sometimes happens on a wind farm. And then there’s the issue of economy … In most cases, we’re limited to very small wind turbines. And we’ve learned that with wind turbines, there are huge economies of scale … the larger turbines are much more cost effective in terms of cost per delivered capacity … … Small wind turbines are pretty hard to justify economically even as stand-alones, and when we put them on buildings, the cost goes up significantly due to structural support and other issues.

[Looking at data from studies in the UK – the Warwick Wind Trials] Measured performance is extraordinarily low … In all cases the actual performance was significantly lower than the predicted …

Quietrevolution Wind Turbine (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Any reputable manufacturer of a wind turbine has power curves – need to look at those very carefully … There isn’t a standardization for small wind turbines right now … you need to look at those numbers really carefully.

The Boston Museum of Science is doing some really neat data collection. Someone had the idea of putting some turbines on to make power – they did some analysis and decided it didn’t make sense economically … but they decided to do it anyway and collect data … They’re using five systems … They’ve got a great display in the building … by now they probably have some published results. The results they get should probably help put to rest this question of whether it makes sense to put turbines on buildings, and should show it doesn’t. They had quite a bit of expense to be able to support the turbines … it was a lot of additional installation cost for very low output.

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This exchange was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

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Part 1 is posted here. Part 3 will be posted soon.

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Assorted Links

For the first time in 35 years, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) is moving to enforce decades-old energy efficiency and water conservation standards.

ICLEI USA has compiled a list of cities taking action to reduce their GHG emissions.

NPR has a map showing renewable energy goals and renewable energy generated for each state.

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Houses – Small, Reused, and Prefab


A number of interesting house-related tidbits came my way this week, and I wanted to share a few favorites…

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NPR featured a story (with photos!) about incredibly tiny Japanese houses designed to fit on slivers of land. Every function and element has to be carefully considered.

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Mother Earth News featured a story about how some folks are reusing round, metal grain bins (also called grain silos) as houses. One architect, Mark Clipsham, specializes in putting one bin inside another (with a crane) and then filling the space with foam insulation to improve thermal performance – there are photos of his work here.

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And Treehugger featured a story about Michelle Kaufmann’s new “Zero” series of prefabricated homes. Her company is based in the Bay Area. Her website goes into more detail about the homes, and lists the “lessons learned” from her previous ventures into prefab, which are incorporated into this venture:

  1. Minimize button up work / maximize what is done off-site
  2. Have a system that can offer both efficiencies with repetition in module types, but designed to offer a great variety of overall configurations so each home can be uniquely composed for the specific site conditions and client goals.
  3. Use materials and systems that have been researched and tested for the optimal balance of beauty, longevity, sustainability and cost
  4. Maximize efficiencies in dimensions of materials by designing to construction and shipping “sweet spots” to reduce waste and costs

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