Monday, June 20, 2011

CalGreen: The Pros and Cons of the New California Building Code.

After spending the day in seminars going over the new California CalGreen Code a while back, I feel I can finally shoot my mouth off a bit without feeling like I haven't "done my homework."  Here are my take away points from the new regs:

First let me say that getting a famously diverse state like California to march in lock step over building codes must be a daunting challenge for any codesmith.  The task boggles my mind.  Also, whether we like it or not, we have big appettites here in California.  We like our scenic highways, our beautiful real estate, our cuisine and our nice weather.  While we care about the environment, we also like our bonvivant lifestyle.  Its not exactly a state of deprivation.

Getting the code officials, let alone the construction industry to realize that environmental issues are also health and safety issues is a challenge I never thought would see the popular light of day.  Up until now I've had the sense the code was a life safety apparatus in the most blunt sense of the word.  It might waste tons of embodied energy in the name of lonely ADA bathrooms sprinkled across the US but at least at the point of use, the mission is clear.  Seeing a code with more big picture environmental concerns is a relief.  It might still be couched in self interested terms, but there is something laudable about treating the environment as something to be preserved.  So bravo on that.  This code is a big step toward recognizing in a conscious way, what many tribal people know intuitively: The environment is worthy of respect and - in some hard-to-define measure - our own well being (i.e. health and safety) is tied up in it.

Having said all that, there are a couple things that really rub the wrong way about this new code.  For now,  let me confine myself to the subject of fireplaces.

There are a lot of people who say they won't buy a house without a fireplace and yet it is ILLEGAL to build a house with a wood fireplace in modern California.  I get there is an indoor air quality issue.  I understand that wood smoke can dirty the air.  Nevertheless, this in itself is not a sufficient reason to outlaw open fires inside a home.  Burning wood has many benefits that driving a car or burning yard waste on burn day lack.  This is especially true in Rural areas. You are replacing the consumption of gas, oil or electric energy with a locally available - potentially FREE fuel that, among other things  - has the added benefit of clearing the underbrush in fire prone areas.

I get that there are certain areas with precipitous terrain or "dead air" that suffer inordinately from wood fires and it makes sense that these areas be considered too dense for fireplace use.  But it seems wrong that everyone should lack the option of a fireplace because of these areas.  We are not headed for the kind of congestion that merits a blanket code on this front.  Marc Reisner, the author of Cadilllac Dessert, would have us believe water usage will curtail growth long before fireplace pollution would have this effect.

The other reason that gets paraded around for public viewing when we talk about abolishing fireplaces is indoor air quality.  The dirty little secret that is implicit in this argument is the fact the code has been pushing the industry, wrongly in my opinion, toward more air tight construction for some time.  It is not without irony that buildings have also been having issues with mold in the past couple decades.  Even the requisite energy calcs mandated by the state of California completely neglect the reality of thermal mass in association with thermal comfort.  Objects (like fireplaces and concrete floors) allow heat to be dissipate over time in a manner that continues to function even when the doors are open or you are in a space with a high ceiling.  Objects with high thermal mass do this primarily by radiating heat via infra red radiation and conducting heat to the surrounding air.  Thermal mass located near the human body is a tremendously effective way to stay warm.

A complaint voiced about fireplaces has been the general draftiness and extremely local comfort afforded by their heat inside a house.  Like this is a big surprise?  Many people know that opening a window or door can help keep a fire going.  The fresh air is also good and, because the fire is a radiant heat source, this isn't, per se, a problem.  If you wanted to be warmer you had to "huddle" by the fire.  Because the code is only now becoming somewhat sensitive to thermal mass, the construction industry has been obsessed with heating the entire mass of air inside a house and then sealing up the house tightly in some kind of strange hoarding idea that should not be given more credence than some - arguably more valid -other ideas.  An equally valid instinct is this abiding "huddle" idea and it seems wrong this idea should be given so little validity when a more worthy goal would be to rectify this deficit in the virtues of a breezy house with high thermal mass in the present code.

Also, the fact that gas fireplaces and EPA approved wood stoves are allowed is suspicious.  All these appliances just seem to be a further step toward disposable materials that work out well for big business.  Gas fireplaces might burn efficiently at the point of use but there is no reliable way to quantify the embodied energy associated with the exploration, extraction, production, transport, storage and distribution of this fuel.  One thing is certain: It's a whole lot greater than a dead piece of wood.

Academics might attempt it, but the reality is: you and I will never know.  It bothers me that this form of fuel use is so causally detached from me.  The beauty of a fireplace is not only the way the flames can lick so deliciously at the dead wood but the fact that people understand it.  Too much smoke can make you choke.  There is no doubt about this.  But the fact you understand exactly what is polluting your environment has merits in itself.  It is too easy to displace the pollution to central locations where its effects go largely unnoticed or understood.  It seems better to regulate the usage of open fireplaces in a community-by-community way where the effects of usage patterns can be suitably addressed along side the obvious economic and larger environmental benefits of avoiding the use of a processed fuel source.

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