Sunday, July 27, 2008

Award Winning Green Roof Designs: The Back Story - Part 1

A colleague sent me a copy of the new green roof coffee table book, Award-winning Green Roof Designs by Steven W. Peck, Founder of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. The book features the first five years of the green roofs for healthy cities national award winners. 

It is the back cover that caught my eye. The roof of the first project I stamped with my seal as an architect, Oaklyn Public Library, in Evansville, Indiana, is featured there. Oaklyn was a 2004 Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Award Winner in the "intensive" (deep, complex) category. 

This book brought back many memories of that unique project and I thought this would be a good time to tell that story. How do you end up with a natural mesic (wet) meadow on top of a new 18,500 square foot public library on a tight budget in a conservative city in Southwestern Indiana? I will tell that story in this Part 1 and also give some detail about how it was built in Part 2. 

Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, which serves 170,000 people, embarked on a $44 million system-wide master plan to build a new $30 million central library, two new branches and renovate three existing branches. I was a junior partner at Veazey Parrott Durkin & Shoulders at the time (an Evansville firm, now VPS Architects) and I was the designated library guy. We formed a strategic association with Engberg Anderson, a nationally-known library design firm out of Milwaukee, and won the first two projects, the new main library and the new Oaklyn Branch. Engberg Anderson took the lead on the Central Library and we took the lead on Oaklyn. A couple of years later VPDS was selected for the second round of projects as well, including another new branch and three renovations. As the associate project architect for the new main library and project architect for the other five projects, I enjoyed a very concentrated learning experience in green library design and construction. The project that will always stand out in my memory, however, is Oaklyn. 

A "bargain" site was selected before the architect was on board and it was a real challenge. The seven-acre site was on a slope that dropped fifty feet from the street at the top to a swampy weed patch at the bottom. The hillside oozed water continuously. The program called for 20,000 square feet of library with room to expand and parking for 125 cars. When the design team got together on the first morning of a two-day community design charrette to map out some initial strategies to present to the public, we were at a loss for ideas. To carve out enough flat space for accessible parking and the building footprint, without creating something akin to a strip mine looked impossible. I threw out two suggestions to the team. One, it must be environmentally sustainable. Two, perhaps it could be built into the hillside as a "shining brow" for the new housing development in the Pigeon Creek valley below. So, as the community design charrettes began, we had two general concepts to present. One was a conventional green library built on the lower edge of the site and the other was an earth-sheltered library built into the hillside, with a evocative clerestory element (later dubbed the Light Bridge) visible from the street. Either would have to be built for less than the established budget of $3.2 million, including the site work.

As the neighborhood association and library staff and administration gathered for the two-day design charrette, I didn't hold out much hope for the earth-sheltered scheme. The more that scheme was discussed, however, the more it seemed to capture everyone's imagination, given the constraints of the site. Two very important questions were raised: How much more will the earth-sheltered scheme cost and how do you make sure it doesn't leak? The second question was the trickiest because library administration was well aware of water issues at a nearby earth-sheltered archabbey library and they were compiling a list of other leaky earth-sheltered libraries across the country. The first question was answered by hiring an independent cost consultant to compare the two concepts. Their study revealed the surprising answer that an earth-sheltered building would have lower initial cost, in spite of a much more expensive roof system, due to three low-cost plain concrete walls that are buried and only one that is exposed and finished. We already knew from our engineers that an earth-sheltered building would cost less to heat and cool, so having lower initial cost as well was very attractive to an organization with as long a view as a public library board. Library director Marcia Au, led an impressive board of progressive thinkers and they welcomed the idea of sustainable design, as long as it was a good long-term deal for the taxpayers.

To answer the second question, we launched into research on the state of the art in green roof design and, through investigation of Chicago City Hall's new green roof, we engaged the ultimate green roof expert, Charlie Miller of Roofscapes. Charlie had been researching German green roof technology and applying it to high-profile projects all over the United States. If you look through Peck's book, or any of the other green roof compendiums, you will see Miller's hand in many of them.

Concept site model of Oaklyn Public Library

With Charlie's help, we were able to show a number of very successful and very dry green roof projects and explain how it would be accomplished technically on this project. We were also able to provide some examples of non-leaky libraries and the most skeptical library administrator came around after visiting one of them. This exercise did not convince everyone, however. As soon as it looked like the earth-sheltered scheme would be developed, a senior partner called me into his office to suggest, in a break with firm tradition, that I stamp the drawings on Oaklyn. I gulped and said, "absolutely!"

All I had to do was to imagine every possible way that water could enter the building for the next 30 or 40 years, then we would have a good chance to keep everything dry, and I could keep practicing architecture. For months I layed awake at night "thinking like water," sometimes bolting upright to jot down notes or sketch details in the wee hours. That would continue through the construction phase, sometimes falling to sleep only to have nightmares of the whole thing gently sliding down the hillside. 

One of the interesting twists came from our landscape architecture consultant, Meg Storrow, who suggested, in keeping with my directive to go green, that the site wanted to be a native mesic meadow due to the constant source of water oozing out of the hillside. Her vision was that the entire seven-acre site, less the parking, could be a self-perpetuating meadow and the site and the building could thus become one.

We were going to ask the low bid contractor to bring a wet hillside onto the roof of a public library filled with moisture-sensitive books and media to keep what the neighbors like to call weeds alive. Charlie Miller's eyes lit up at the prospect and he invented an 18-inch-deep green roof that combined a series of "ponding elements" with a back-up subterranean trickle irrigation system from Germany that looked to me very much like a cattle trough water valve you could get at Tractor Supply. To add to the complexity, he included a series of rectangular horizontal drain pipes to make sure it didn't get too wet. My thoughts frequently turned to the question of the worse case scenario. What if you had to tear all that stuff off to find a leak? Who would pay for that?

Flood testing Oaklyn Library's meadow roof membrane prior to installation of overburden.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Drill, Drill, Drill or Conserve, Conserve, Conserve?

Should we open up currently off-limits Outer Continental Shelf and Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge lands to oil exploration or save those resources for future generations?

Is it all or none or is there some middle ground?

If you want to see that debate in-depth among oil industry insiders and scientists, check out this post by Robert Rapier on The Oil Drum that suggests a compromise and be sure to wade through the 130+ Comments. This popular blog regularly features energy experts and policy makers of all stripes and no statement is left unchallenged, but the exchange generally remains on a high intellectual plane, which is rare on sites that address this high-octane topic. 

Reading this blog, and especially the comments from experts, provides me with a healthy dose of humility about my level of expertise in terms of this extremely urgent but complex issue and it inspires me to learn more.

As Eric Hoffer said, "In times of drastic change, the learners will inherit the future, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists." These are indeed times of drastic change.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

America's Most Walkable Neighborhoods

A group called Front Seat, with help from heavyweights like the Sightline Institute, the Brookings Institution and Google, has ranked 2,508 neighborhoods in the largest 40 U.S. cities, with the goal of helping people locate housing in walkable areas and to promote the design of walkable communities. You may want to check out your own neighborhood Walk Score and see if you think it is scored correctly. Just type in the street address, the database knows what city you are from by your computer's address (a little creepy).

My Indianapolis neighborhood, which is about 5 miles northwest of Monument Circle, has no sidewalks, so I walk on the road each morning. My neighborhood, called Highland Kessler, scored a 14 (car dependent) while Downtown at Monument Circle scored 98 (walker's paradise) out of a possible 100. When I typed in addresses of other known walkable parts of Indy, the scores elevated accordingly. Popular Broad Ripple Village scored in the high 80s (very walkable). The walkability is a function of pedestrian ways and also useful places to walk to. If you are shopping for a walkable neighborhood, this will show you a score for a specific address with a map showing attractions within walking distance and you can also get a Google street view, as in the thumbnail above.

The message is that walkable communities are more desirable places to live, work and play and real estate values tend to support that, especially with gas above $4 a gallon. Chris Leinberger, author of The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream points out that a Brookings Institute survey he directed "shows anywhere from a 40% to 200% price premium on a price per square foot basis for a walkable urban place as opposed to a competitive nearby drivable suburban place." See his interview with CNN

An interesting way to check this out is to type your sample addresses into Walk Score and then Zillow to compare property values of your cities walkable verses drivable-only neighborhoods. Let me know what you find out. From my own virtual exploration, it appears we should be investing in sidewalks "complete streets" and changing zoning laws that prevent mixed use. The highest property values are in those walkable urban neighborhoods followed closely by those gridded neighborhoods that were designed before the 1950s with boulevards, sidewalks and garages in back off the alley. You know, those neighborhoods where for sale signs are never needed. Savvy developers have rediscovered this and the typical isolated "dead worm" surburban greenfield development may be on the way out, accelerated by rising fuel costs and a rocky home mortgage climate. When builders and developers retool and reload, look for more walkable mixed-use communities and more dense urban redevelopment with interesting, walkable streets with lots of unique local businesses.

Why should you want to walk? Walk Score gives the following reasons: better health, reduction in greenhouse gas, more transportation options, walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors, and stronger local businesses. The developers of Walk Score hope that someday real estate listings will tell you the square feet, the number of bathrooms and the Walk Score of the property. But you don't have to wait. You can get the Walk Score now.

Where can you find out more?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Are You Certifiable?

As I posted earlier, the gig is up for people talking the talk without walking the walk. Today, calling something green that isn't may simply be a marketing faux pas, cause a campus riot, or may have more serious consequences (try explaining to the USDA that you thought "organic" was just a word). What I failed to do, as some of you so wisely pointed out, is to list some resources for certification. This is far from an exhaustive list and some lesser competing rating systems are not listed. If I missed your favorite, let me know.

Follow the links if you want to certify:

Green Buildings - U.S. Green Building Council LEED Green Building Rating System rates buildings in six categories (site, water, energy, materials, indoor air quality and innovation in design) and has different versions for new construction, commercial interiors, core and shell, existing buildings, and homes. A new and improved version is due out this year, as are rating systems for neighborhood development and schools. LEED is the mother of building-related rating systems and uses some of the other rating systems listed below to determine whether materials like carpet (Greenguard) contribute to indoor air quality problems, for example. This international organization with over 15,000 member organizations, also has an accreditation program for "LEED Accredited Professionals." There are over 50,000 LEED APs and the national convention doubles in attendence each year (last year's Greenbuild 2007 convention in Chicago had over 25,000 attendees and four-hour waiting lines at registration). Look out Boston!

Energy Efficient Buildings and Appliances - Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star rating system is not quite as comprehensive as the LEED rating system, but it is used by LEED as a gauge of efficiency for existing buildings. Some buildings have as much electrical power going to "plug loads" (things you plug in) as they do general building system loads, so this is a very important rating system for power-hungry appliances, computers and other rated equipment. 

Organic Food - USDA National Organic Program like all the others, is far from perfect, but it has enabled an industry, which is the point of most of these systems. That industry now has lots of money and money talks. This is no longer about local mom and pop truck farms. This is an area ripe for alternative third-party certification systems. 

Low-chemical Emissions Products - Greenguard Environmental Institute certifies building materials, such as carpet, that are low in chemical and particle emissions to improve indoor air quality. 

Certified Furniture, Wood Products, Cleaning Products and Building Materials - Scientific Certification Systems. This comprehensive organization is also certifying manufacturing, floral and fishing operations. 

Green Materials and Lodging - Green Seal is also into products but it also rates the hospitality industry which is quickly greening to catch up to traveler demand. 

Truly Renewable Lifecycle Products - Cradle to Cradle Certification, created by green product gurus Bill McDonough (an architect) and Michael Braungart (a chemist) is a very rigorous certification (with smoking high marketing value) for products that have a useful life after their useful life. This has been applied to everything from fabrics to furniture and beyond. If you haven't read the book, Cradle to Cradle, stop reading this now and pick that up. Report back here afterwords and this blog and this post will make more sense to you.

Certified Wood - The Forest Stewardship Council has a rather strict "chain of custody" system for certifying that the wood used in your project came from well-managed, sustainable forests using best practices for avoiding erosion and other environmental damage. This is the only forest certification system currently awarded points under the LEED Green Building Rating system, which is cause for much controversy among the lumber industry.

Rainforest Friendly Business - The Rainforest Alliance works with businesses that use forest or farm products or engage in ecotourism to cerify that their practices are in the best interest of sustainaing the "lungs of the planet."

Green Builders, Contractors and Subcontractors - Green Advantage Environmental Certification trains and tests builders who want to build green. The National Association of Home Builders also has a new National Green Home Program certification system for green builders and green homes.

Sustainably Grown Flowers - Veriflora certification can tell you that your florist is not slashing and burning to get those roses and that they are taking care of their workers.

Sustainable Seafood - the Marine Stewardship Council can tell you if eating Charlie Tuna is a good idea of if you should go for the halibut. 

Renewable Energy - before you spring for those renewable energy certificates, check with Green e to make sure you are actually paying for renewable energy.

If this all sounds confusing and complicated and you wonder if some of these (or others not named) are just scams, there are a couple of places I recommend you go for some fact checking: 

Consumer Reports Greener Choices 

The Federal Trade Commission Guides for Environmental Marketing Claims Guide to Green Certification and Ecolabelling

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why Philippe Starck's Wind Turbine Probably Won't Work

Some wind turbines on the market today will generate more disappointment than electricity and that poses a major threat to the eventual acceptance of small wind systems for alternative home and business power. Wind power properly designed and installed works, but you get what you pay for. Wind power that looks too good to be true, probably will provide a great conversation piece, but not much electricity.

Philippe Starck's mysterious wind machine

The difference between a wind turbine that works and one that doesn't has to do with lift verses drag and also with the relationship between wind speed and turbine power. Some wind turbines being hyped now appear to violate those laws. The most unlikely candidate for successful wind power comes from French designer Philippe Starck. His "Democratic Ecology" wind machine, as described at Inhabitat, looks like a drag-effect machine.

If you have seen a cup anemometer that measures wind speed, you have seen a drag-effect device. It can move no faster than the speed of the wind it is being pushed by and because of it's own drag, it can't even achieve that speed. It can't go faster than it is being pushed. Another example would be a sailboat sailing with the wind directly behind it. Put out every sail you have and you will still be sailing slower than the wind speed and not generating nearly as much power as you would if you were sailing a "reach" perpendicular to the wind and using the gift of lift. Drag is the aerodynamic force parallel to the flow. Lift is the aerodynamic force perpendicular to the flow and it is much more useful. As a student pilot I was terrified by the difference between flying fast enough for the wings to have lift and flying too slow where lift suddenly disappeared or stalled. 

When a wing or a sail or a turbine blade does not have enough airspeed, it loses lift and has only drag, which is a real drag when you are falling out of the sky like a rock or watching a very expensive wind turbine just sitting there motionless. So when you are shopping for wind power, remember that lift is uplifting, drag is a drag.

The other key piece of physics to know as it relates to wind power is that the relationship of wind speed to wind power is not a linear one. The power of a wind turbine is proportional to the cubed velocity of the wind. In other words, a little difference in wind speed, means a huge difference in power output. The power output quoted on some wind power devices is with a constant twenty-miles-per-hour wind, which might be useful if you lived on an mountain ridge, but not if you live in a typical neighborhood in say, Indiana. You need to know your local average wind speed resource at the height you intend to mount the device. That is accomplished by mounting an anemometer on a tower at the proposed height or several heights to see what would be most productive. You would also want to determine your total electrical load and how much of that you want to produce by wind power. One good resource to start with to go through that exercise would be Small Wind Electric Systems: A Consumer's Guide. You will learn that tower height is critically important to get up out of ground turbulence into clear air with a more constant wind resource to produce much more power. Remember power relates to wind speed cubed, so a seemingly small difference in wind speed gained makes a huge difference in power output.

I used to be enamored by building-integrated wind power. Now I think that strategy in its current form may be detrimental to the wide acceptance of distributed wind power. Wind power integrated with a building is likely to be a drag-effect device and thus not produce much power in relation to the wind resource. That wind resource will likely be mounted within the turbulence zone that surrounds structures and trees. If it is mounted on the building it will introduce another couple of challenges. A turbine generating a significant amount of power will be subject to a significant amount of lateral force, which will have to be accounted for in the design of the supporting structural system. If the structural system has to be reinforced, the cost/benefit ratio may be significantly impacted. Even if you account for the structural load, there will be the vibration associated with a spinning machine. Can that vibration be isolated such that noise and discomforting vibration are not transmitted through the structure? Why not just invest the extra money in a a quiet building-integrated solar photovoltaic system with no moving parts?

Like many of the new building-integrated wind turbines, the Philippe Starck model is preceded by promises of amazing performance. What remains to be communicated are the numbers for power output at various wind speeds, mounting details and system costs (the turbine itself is supposed to sell in the $600 range). How long is it guaranteed to last and what kind of maintenance is required? As a general rule, the smaller the turbine, the faster it spins and the shorter its life. Big turbines spin relatively slowly, last longer and produce more power with less noise and vibration. 

"I was a producer of materiality and I am ashamed of this fact," Starck told Die Zeit weekly newspaper. "Everything I designed was unnecessary. " 

Maybe he is not yet over that stage in his career development. Show me the numbers on your new eggbeater, Phil. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Will the Volt Unplug GM?

After I promised an "Electric Car Buyer's Guide" in a previous post, I realized that Autobloggreen has already done that with an excellent web site. I was also knocked out of my technogeeklust fog by a comment from Kevin (whose thoughtful Urban Indy blog I read religiously).

"Electric cars are neat. However, one of my goals is to be able to live in this city without needing to own a car at all. I've just got this nagging feeling that if we can figure out electric cars at a large scale, we're still going to build our landscapes around the car, instead of humans. Car-based planning is unattractive, no matter how you are powering the car. Suburbs age very rapidly. Congestion will still be a problem, and as they say, you can't build your way out of it with wider (or more) roads."

Most of the electrics on the market now are Neighborhood Electric Vehicles that are not legal at highway speeds and not allowed at all in some jurisdictions. The Tesla is in production, but good luck getting one even if you have the $100K in hand.

Dynasty Neighborhood Electric Vehicle

The most interesting article I ran across researching a potential practical electric car buyers guide is Jonathan Rauch's riveting description of the monumental effort General Motors is mounting to deliver the Chevy Volt electric vehicle to showrooms in 2010. Don't miss Electro-Shock Therapy: GM Bets Everything on the Plug-in Car by Jonathan Rauch in the July-August issue of The Atlantic.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Will The Long Emergency lead to the World Made by Hand or will you Profit from the Peak?

My first introduction to the concept of Peak Oil was through a book by James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency, that I could not get out of my head for months after I read it. It was another opinionated Kunstler rant but with a clear and powerful synthesis of the major global issues I had been concerned about. He presented a worst case scenario about how things might play out that was unrealistically pessimistic but it motivated me to do more research. Another of his earlier books, Home From Nowhere, was a polemic about suburban sprawl, which he called "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and he called the typical "asteroid belt of strip mall development" surrounding our cities the "national automobile slum."

According to Kunstler, America has been "sleepwalking into the future." When he is at his best, the clarity of his vision is like awakening from sleep and his emotionally powerful and often eloquent rhetoric is backed by hard data and solid research (although he often fails to credit his sources). When he is at his worst, he is ranting, didactic, crude, and prone to using offensive stereotypes and cliches. To get a feel for his style, watch his 20-minute TED talk Dissecting Suburbia. You can see why many people, even those who share his views, think he is a bit over the top. But he is worth listening to for those gems of startling insight.

If I were teaching a course on where we are, how we got here, and how we go forward, the two books above would be candidates for the class reading list to stimulate early discussion. My brother, Bob, in Atlanta is in a book discussion group that is tackling The Long Emergency now and I think that is a great choice for any book club as we attempt to deal with the new reality of rising energy prices, which are just the tip of the iceberg of the perfect storm of change headed our way. The second half of the course would have more solutions-oriented references (see Plan B 3.0 - Brown or Apollo's Fire -Inslee and Hendricks, for example).

So, it was with great anticipation (good and bad) that I opened Kunstler's new novel, World Made By Hand. Union Grove is a fictional town in New York set in the not-to-distant future after the Long Emergency has left us with a post-automobile society. Business, manufacturing, medicine and food production are all local. There are no utilities and no telecommunications. Communication with the outside world is limited to pre-telegraph-era means. A significant portion of the population was wiped out by influenza. Central government is scattered due to a nuclear catastrophe that leveled Washington, DC. Travel is dangerous and the roads have deteriorated to the point where horse-drawn traffic uses the shoulders, not the road beds. Raw materials come from deconstructing abandoned big box stores and excavating the landfills. Warlords control commerce and lawlessness threatens shipping along the river and the tenuous remaining sense of order in Union Grove. Finished products are made by hand. Electricity is intermittent, unless you happen to have your own micro-hydro generator or working windmill. The "wealthy" are large landowners with self-sufficient farming operations and there's plenty of cheap labor to go around, drawn from the ranks of former lawyers, bankers and real estate salesmen.

This could have been a useful thought experiment, and the first few chapters offered a compelling glimpse of a potential alternative future, but Kunstler went too far and his vision is too dark and too flawed to resonate. His characters are poorly developed and the plot is weakened as he meanders into a bizarre science fiction path (is Brother Jobe a giant insect?) that he never develops or resolves. By introducing a nuclear attack and elements of some weird queen bee mysticism at the core of an Amish-like enclave (hive?), we are left trying to decide what caused society to step back to this 1880s Wild West on drugs version of Dystopia Mayberry. I get the impression Kunstler is so fed up with our suburban nation that he dreams of having his own little self-sufficient village enclave where everything is made by hand, but he makes it feel like more of a nightmare than a utopia. I was left with the impression that I wouldn't mind living in a more self-reliant community as long as I didn't have to live anywhere near the dysfunctional characters in this novel.

Read The Long Emergency and discuss it with your Sunday school class and your board of directors. Let the World Made By Hand die on a warehouse pallet so it can be recycled into something more useful and Kunstler can get back to his day job of writing thought-provoking nonfiction.

As author and philosopher Eric Hoffer once said, "In times of drastic change, the learners will inherit the future, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." If you are like me and you are trying to learn how to inherit the future and you find your retirement nest egg shrinking as the stock market gets hammered, you may want to peruse another book, How to Profit From the Peak, by Brian Hicks and Chris Nelder. This book is in some ways the opposite of Kunstler's books. While Kunstler thinks the financial markets will collapse, Hicks and Nelder subtitle their book, "The End of Oil and the Greatest Investment Event of the Century." OK, yes, they are a bit over the top in the other direction, perhaps, but what I find compelling about this book is the clarity of their description of what the Peak Oil challenge is and their extensive reference to sources to back up each of their statements.

Their book is divided into three parts: Part 1 - The Crisis in a Barrel, Part 2 - Making Money from the Fossil Fuels That Are Left and Part 3 - Energy After Oil. They make specific stock recommendations, but they also attempt to equip you with the big picture so that you might avoid investing in dead end technology (the hydrogen economy, for example). Ignorance is bliss, but relevance is more sustainable and pays better over the long haul.

I think the true picture of the future lies somewhere between The Long Emergency and How to Profit From the Peak. Read both before you call your broker, buy your next home, or before the next election (especially if you are candidate).

Learning is one investment that will always pay a return.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Teasers from California

I just got back from four days in Anaheim, California where I spoke at the American Library Association National Convention on "Shades of Green." I explained how to deliver a Futureproof net-zero-energy library (deep green) for as little as $140 per square foot, such as in Chrisney Library that just bid in Spencer County, Indiana, and why that might be important to the future of America.

A recent report by the Langdon Group on The Cost of Green Revisited noted that libraries lead the nation as a building type in terms of percentage of LEED certifications and their architects have more experience in green design. As a result, Langdon reported that libraries also tend to have the least initial cost differential for green design verses conventional design.

This presentation occurred a day after two busloads toured a beautiful new Santa Monica LEED Gold certified green library (above) that was built for an eye-popping $350 per square foot. This outstanding 100,000 s.f. library is 40 times the size of Chrisney Library and more than double the cost per square foot but with approximately the same size solar array.

Apparently the taxpayers of California see the value of great public libraries as centers of community culture and life-long learning, excellent investments in their future and places to demonstrate sustainable design to the general public in the form of the building. They also apparently have a more robust property tax base than Indianapolis (Santa Monica is a city library and the employees work for the city government).

I learned that a "tear-down" house in Santa Monica costs $2.5 million and gas costs $4.89 per gallon. The library director confided that he can't afford to live in the city where his library is located. But they have that to-die-for oceanfront that delivers cool breezes to keep the city as much as 25 degrees cooler than the inland valleys.

But I came back anyway. There's work to do here and they only get 12 inches of rain per year. Hey, we get that in 24 hours sometimes! To Santa Monica Library's credit, they store their precious rainwater in a 200,000 gallon cistern the size of a city pool below the 2nd level of their underground parking structure and use it for stormwater retention and irrigation.

This weekend I will provide more detail about how to go net zero on a budget, including information on tax incentives and grants, the current key to return on investment success. This is the ultimate hedge against future electrical cost inflation (which will be particularly egregious in coal-powered states, like Indiana). I will also discuss how you might fuel your future electric car with your own solar or wind system for infinite miles per gallon of gas and how your electric car might work with a smart electric transmission grid to even out intermittent but clean renewable resources like wind and solar power while it is parked and plugged in to the smart grid. Get ready for your Smart Garage.

I was also able to do some research on the state of the art of electric cars and I will provide a Buyers Guide to Electric Cars while the rest of you are setting off explosive devices in celebration of our Independence. I think there is another type of independence we will be celebrating in the future, but we have much work to do to get free of our addiction to foreign oil. If you think electric cars are all boring or impractical or off in the distant future, you may be in for a surprise.

This trip also provided me the time to finish two thought-provoking books that I will give reports on: World Made By Hand, a piece of fiction by James Howard Kunstler that portrays his vision for post-carbon America (he should stick to nonfiction) and Profit From The Peak, by Brian Hicks and Chris Nelder.

I also ran across this piece in the Wall Street Journal and found the entire paper here. Be sure to peruse the amazing graphs of oil expenditures verses food expenditures and let me know what you think. Will $7/gallon gas take 10 million cars off the road?

So, forgive me while I get my feet back on the ground and let me know what is on your mind as you strive to go from brown to green. I pledge to spend the long weekend in stream-of-conscious writing. There's so much to tell you about and so little time. I have to design some more net zero energy buildings to offset my trip's carbon footprint.