Monty Python and the Zero-Energy Emerald
I love subtle humor and tongue-in-cheek writing and thus enjoyed last month's Real Estate Guide reportage on the "The Zero-Energy Jewel of the Southwest." The jewel is the Emerald Home, now nearing completion in Santa Fe, and so named because it denotes the highest green-building certification available in New Mexico. When I began to read the article I assumed it was serious and based on solid research and proven methodologies; half way through, I realized that the fanciful commentary belied a lampoon, and a good one considering the near mania that now possesses the green building industry.
What gave the game away was the term "zero-energy building" in the second to last paragraph. Wow, thought I, they've overcome the second law of thermodynamics! With this breakthrough they have led the way to perpetual motion, considered by all physicists until now to be unattainable. Entropy be damned, we can now build, heat, cool and live in a house that consumes no energy in its construction and rocks along eternally in a state of perfect equilibrium.
I fear, however, that not everyone who read the piece will have the same appreciation for satire as I and so, like the voice-over in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I will talk you doubters through the script highlighting, in the order in which they were presented, some of the more compelling passages.
First: The setting and the garage. The Emerald is clearly in a rural setting and pays homage to internal combustion (or the charging of batteries with electricity produced by burning coal in Shiprock) because it includes a garage. This is very practical and plays to the notion that green living does not need to be an inconvenience or in any way cramp the misanthrope's desire to escape the commonly advocated "cluster" concept whereby all conveniences are but a few footfalls away.
Next: Old wood. Old wood is good, provided it is not ripped from still-standing historic barns. If someone wants to tear down their old barn and sell the beams they have every right to do that, but wouldn't the potential green builder have a twinge of conscience knowing that the greenest of all possible approaches to building is to recycle existing building stock or, if salvaging, to do it close to home? I am so curious about the zero-energy driving trips to inspect the wood and the zero-energy beam-me-up devices that got the logs from Minnesota to New Mexico. Sustainability has been re-defined as the "zero-impact consumption of a constantly self-renewing supply of old wood from historic buildings."
Now where? Oh yes, the six, 200-foot wells. The Emerald employs 1200 feet of drilled hole in its heat exchangers. I used to be in the drilling business, technically still am, and I have never been able to drill a zero energy hole; therefore, this breakthrough is quite interesting to me. However, how does one calculate and compare the value of the zero energy it took to drill and equip the wells, and the "minimized" energy consumed to operate them, with the non-zero values of a conventional or, for that matter, any other system? This gets really confusing to me because it seems to break another fundamental natural law: Zero percent of nothing now seems to equal some value other than zero. There are more zeros in this house than there are in a stimulus package.
Then: Portland cement. I have made and laid tens of thousands of compressed earth blocks, and the process is an elegant one. Dirt in, block out; simple, inexpensive, fun. But if you add Portland, the elegance is gone because you have used as an amendment one of the highest energy-embodied substances known to Man. If the site soil wouldn't work, why not use zero-energy, non-stabilized adobes from Francisco, The Adobe Man? He's in the phone book and delivers.
I'm going over my allotted word count here, but I cannot close without pointing out with profound appreciation the two most subtle, satirical elements in the article. First this; "Aside from these virtually carbon-dioxide-neutral fireplaces. . . we don't have any carbon emissions at the site." I am in awe at how such a transformative event can be communicated with such brevity and verbal facility! A parallel universe must, in fact, exist because on my planet all life forms are carbon-based; in the case of us, homo sapiens (Latin for "wise man"), we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. What a dilemma the Emerald presents: Either it really is in a parallel universe yet easily accessible to us, or homo sapiens have never and will never exhale there.
Finally, and I'm sure you're ready for the Economy Pitch: "In a traditional home of this size, the average utility bill is $600 per month, so over a 30 year loan period you're saving more than $215,000." I did the math, and indeed, they're talking zero utilities. A builder's and a buyer's dream: A zero sum result with no perceived disadvantages or consequences.
Now, I truly appreciate all the work that has gone into the Santa Fe Residential Green Building Code, and the developers' intentions with the Emerald. I am sure the City has also worked hard to reconcile that code with its affordable housing initiatives and mandates and that the disparate codes are working harmoniously in concert with one another. Which brings up the resource efficiency and homeowner education categories of the Green Building Code: Resources, i.e. money, are important factors to homeowners, particularly in the affordable category. I'm sure that educating that group to the niceties of living in an award winning and eco-friendly home will not be an issue. Assuming, of course, they can get the financing.
If I may, I will cut the flippancy and end on a serious note. If green building is to take root it must be honestly presented; it cannot be experimental (and does not need to be); it must be demonstrably affordable; and it must have the ability to be taken to scale. In a word, it must make sense to the common man, not have appeal only to the activist, the romantic or the dilettante. As a Conservative, I favor and endorse green building and I want to see it succeed; in fact, I've been advocating in its behalf for decades. Baseless claims and wild hyperbole do not advance the concept; in fact, they diminish and demean it.
The Emerald Home, in my view, takes green building into the realm of the Holy Grail; it is shrouded in mystery; attainable by few, if any; and it turns something that should be and is perfectly material and achievable into an elusive abstraction.