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    Politics Under the Sun

    As Solar Decathlon teams assemble their entries, politics heats up everything under the sun. Republicans gleefully exploit the failure of solar panel startup Solyndra, and Germany's Passiv Haus Institut casts out their US incarnation. In Passive House Schism Leaves U.S. in Limbo, GreenSource reports:

    The international Passive House Institute (PHI) has severed its ties with the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS), as PHI’s Wolfgang Feist accuses the U.S. body of compromising the Passive House standard. PHIUS, for its part, labels Feist’s open letter an act of sabotaging the Passive House standard, and is working to mollify certified Passive House designers and projects whose credentials may be caught up in the dispute. The Passive House standard has since been admired for its simplicity, but the relationships behind it are clearly more complex.

    Not everyone, was taken off guard by the new developments. “It’s been like watching a train wreck coming,” says Jamie Wolf, principal of Wolfworks and a PHIUS-certified designer. He explains that given the “swirling background of allegiances and betrayals” that has characterized PHIUS for a year or more, “it was not a question of if, but when, something like this was going to come to pass.”

    I've already mentioned the questions about LEED certification, and now some 170 PHIUS-certified design firms are facing withdrawal of their status as Passiv Haus designers. What probably worries them is whether upscale clients will have confidence in a US version of the Passiv Haus standard.

    One of the most striking accusations by Feist in his open letter is that of “certification of Passive House buildings without the requisite documentation.” In its response, PHIUS blames Feist for inaccurately portraying “difficulties with one project certified by PHIUS as a rationale for withdrawing its license to certify projects.” Klingenberg’s letter offers more details about these “difficulties,” which appear to involve non-European windows, ventilation questions, and a thermal break that was not built as designed.

    I did some high-end residential design in the 1980s, but the idea of using Euro windows is a new one on me. Our designers often specify Italian tile or German cabinets, or even Swiss radiators, but I can't recall ever specifying a window made overseas. With Pella, Marvin, Andersen, Peachtree, etc. right here, why blow LEED points shopping in Europe?

    (I did read that Jeld-Wen is in big trouble, though, facing bankruptcy in Oregon  and locking out workers in Australia. Jeld-Wen was a step below the big names, but was well-regarded in my experience.)

    Apparently the problem is, again, one of certification. In Green Building Advisor, their Energy Nerd muses:

    Almost every North American builder who has attended a building-materials trade show in Munich, Freiburg, or Darmstadt ends up salivating over the quality of European tilt/turn windows. German and Austrian windows cost an arm and a leg; but they have hefty triple glazing and triple weatherstripping, and they close like a bank vault. ...

    Europeans calculate their window U-factors differently from North Americans. I’m not just talking about the units of measurement; it’s easy enough to convert W/ m2•°C to BTU/ ft2•h•°F. (Just divide by 5.678.) I’m talking about the formula used to account for the varying U-factors of the window’s frame, the edge of glass, and the center of glass.

    The issue is complicated and technical; suffice it to say that North American window manufacturers contend that the whole-window U-factors of North American windows, calculated according the NFRC requirements, are not as bad as a direct comparison with European window numbers might lead one to believe.

    but contending is not proving ...

    North American window manufacturers haven’t bothered to have their windows certified by the Passivhaus Institut. Although the NRFC software used by window manufacturers requires the input of separate U-factors for window frames, edge of glass, and center of glass — U-factors that roughly correspond to the inputs used in the PHPP software — these numbers are not shown on the NFRC label. As a result, Passivhaus builders have to cajole U.S. and Canadian window manufacturers to provide the numbers. Since some window manufacturers subcontract their U-factor calculations to third-party labs, they may be unable to provide the requested information.

    I've run into similar certification issues with LEED. Many manufacturers have embraced LEED, and see value in associating themselves with the sort of quality standards that LEED requires. But I noticed on several projects that wood door manufacturers flat out refused to pony up the fees that Forest Stewardship Council charges to register a project and certify chain-of-custody for wood products.

    I had thought they were just being cranky, but FSC is controversial. Although USGBC still requires FSC certification to earn certain LEED credits, there have been rumors that they may seek alternate certifications. Someone has gone to the trouble to set up an FSC watch website, and at Ecopreneurist, a small printer complains:

    Look, I’m a small company – we do $3-$4 million in sales per year, and when I had to sign up for FSC certification in 2008, and spend $10,000-$15,000 to make this happen, with ongoing overhead expenses, I did it.  I thought it would be a cost of doing business, and that I would lose business from eco-minded clients if I wasn’t FSC certified.  When sales fell in 2009 and 2010, I appealed to FSC to get a reduction in my fees, as I was facing the choice between paying my FSC bill or my payroll.  FSC wouldn’t budge, so I didn’t renew, as I was more interested in protecting my employees than I was in paying what I saw as an FSC tax.  I haven’t noticed a sales drop off due to this decision.”

    Such wrangling is disconcerting for the well-meaning armchair eco-warrior. Forests need regulation and Republican complaints about any government regulations are tedious, but I am sympathetic to small businesses that can't afford to pay high fees during slow times.


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