Monday, 11 December 2017

Lesson 10: Take 3: Standards

It's a challenge making building standards interesting. The topic seems as dry as a highly insulated house in the middle of winter with heat recovery ventilation and no humidification. As I started brushing the cobwebs off last year's presentation, my first thought was that I should teach this lesson later, and tackle the altogether more exciting topic of energy generation first. I stopped myself, thinking that I was just trying to put it off, and I've just noticed now that I'd moved it two weeks later last year. A lesson on comfort had been added to the original plan, and Windows 2.0 came after the lesson on standards the first time.

This lesson should really work as a revision of what I've been telling them about low energy building, since standards ideally reflect the essence of low energy building, and promote improvement.

I followed the plan at the beginning, giving them several reasons for low energy building. An obvious reason is to reduce environmental impact, although unfortunately this is a relatively low priority for a lot of people. Money is often a higher priority, and the fact that low energy buildings are cheaper to run, long term, is perhaps a more powerful incentive. Even then, a lot of people are concerned with the immediate costs, and less worried about possible future savings. Grants or tax breaks are another reason people may build low energy, but the most powerful reason is probably where there are laws that oblige people to build low energy.

Then I tried to introduce the idea of standards, with a few examples and their logos, including the JIS (Japan Industrial Standards) logo, which they all knew, and the logos for European Standards, British Standards, and Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which they did not.

In order to breathe some air into the topic, I put them into groups and had them imagine they were government committees who had to come up with their own standards to ensure low energy buildings.

First they had to brainstorm for things they could look at. I had to steer them away from things like giving grants, which is a good idea but not actually a standard.

Their ideas mentioned insulation materials, windows, form factor and solar power.

After some brainstorming, I got each group to choose two or three ideas, and come up with some details of what exactly they would stipulate.

They came up with a few concrete suggestions, such as using wood rather than aluminium for window frames, and a minimum percentage of glazing to frame. Other ideas were a bit vaguer, like making the air gap thicker, and having "really thick" walls. There were very few actual numbers, and nobody mentioned U-values, which makes me think I haven't talked about that enough times.​ Also nobody mentioned ventilation.​ One group came up with the two ideas of adding solar panels, and adding a battery to store the power. These are both interesting ideas but have absolutely nothing to do with what we've been talking about for the previous nine weeks. That did make me think I should have done the lesson on generation first.

The lack of detail also made me wonder whether I should have given them that task later in the lesson, after I had given some examples of actual building standards. As often happens in teaching, there is a difficult balance to reach between giving students information and getting them to come up with their own ideas. Perhaps I should start off by introducing some of the early low-energy building standards and then get them to think about what is missing, how they could be improved, and what they would do now.

This may have been a good lesson to produce a multi-dimensional gap fill, or jigsaw activity for. There is a smartphone app called Quizlet Live that lets you add several questions and their answers, which are then scrambled for students to match. The teacher gives students an access code, then the app puts students into groups of three or four, so they have to go and find their partners. Then each student gets around four answers on their screen, and the questions come up in turn. The student with the correct answer must select that, then they will all get the next question. If someone gives the wrong answer, it goes back to the beginning again, shuffling the answers. This may not make the content any less dry, but it could socialise its delivery.

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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Building Jokes

There was a tweet a while a ago from Nick Grant @ecominimalnick with a picture of a structural engineering joke.

I didn't get it at first, but the joke is that the round black things with the bolts in are supposed to be stopping the walls from bulging, by bolting them onto the floor. Clearly the floor is not in the middle of the windows. This may be a deliberate joke, but I don't think the other pictures are.

A couple of my students did start laughing when I showed them this picture, which Sam sent me. I'd been talking about the relative merits of glass, air and aluminium in window construction, and they found this very funny, although I doubt the joke is deliberate.

I asked them to calculate how much glass and how much frame there was. They all guessed around 70% glass and 30% frame, but actually it's closer to 55% frame and 45% glass.

It's even funnier when you notice the unmelted snow, and see where the sun is coming from and realise this is a North-facing window. So not only is the aluminium going to reduce the performance of the glass, it's not going to get much sunlight coming in. It's possible there is some fantastic view that these windows look at, but even then, most of the view will be obscured by frame.

Of course traditional houses in the UK aren't much better.

I also showed them the windows below from a brand new concert hall in a nearby city. Due to my photographic inability, it's a bit difficult to work out what's going on, but basically the external surface area has been needlessly increased by around 20%, and it's aluminium too.

This time the joke is on the city tax payers, who will be getting the heating bill.

Friday, 17 November 2017

How to build a house Part 4. Paying for the bloody thing

Financing is the main thing stopping many people from building their dream homes. Still others are forced into building a house because they have access to finance​, and that may turn into a nightmare.​

Unless you are one of the lucky few with enough cash to pay for a house up front, you probably need to get a mortgage. Banks can decide who to lend, or not to lend to, but as with many things, the biggest factor is whether you want to borrow money or not. As Henry Ford said, "whether you think you can, or think you can't—you're usually right."

I've heard foreign residents in Japan say that banks won't lend to them if they don't have permanent residency and permanent employment somewhere. That's certainly true if they think it's true, and don't go and ask any banks.

If you want to get a loan, then get it while you are employed. The bank will be happier to lend if you have a steady income, that has been paid into your bank for several years. Before I got a loan I was worried that I would be stuck to my job forever. I was also somewhat scared of monthly repayments until I'm into my seventies. As it happens, after getting the loan I felt much less chained to my current job, and I hardly think about the monthly repayments. ​They're just like rent, which I had got used to paying. ​

Money used to be bits of metal, then it became bits of paper and later bits of plastic. Now it's just bits on a computer somewhere. It's not a particularly scarce resource, but that may be easy for me to say with an overly privileged background and a life of undeserved comfort​!​


But​ whether you're paying in cash or from a hard-fought loan, the question remains: how much is the bloody thing going to cost?

It's like when you go to a restaurant and look at the prices on the menu. Except there are another few noughts on the cost of everything.

Glass of wine 300 yen. Light fittings: 300,000 yen.

Salad 500 yen. Bathroom: 500,000 yen.

Paint. You want paint?

This should not be surprising when you consider how big a house is.

The glass in our windows could have made a thousand drinking glasses, and the tiles on our floor could make a thousand ​plates. I don't want to think about how many chopsticks the wood could be split into.

It's important to understand the difference between price and cost​, which are not the same. Basically price is what you pay to get something, and cost is what the person who gives it to you had to pay. Businesses stay in business because of the difference between price and cost, and often the relationship is arbitrary. The price depends on how much ​the customer ​is able to pay, and how much other people are charging, not on how much it will cost the​ supplier to produce. The costs can't stay above the prices for long, unless that is funding another revenue stream​, as when Gillette sold shaving handles below cost, or even gave them away because they could make money out of the razor blades.

​House builders are in almost exactly the opposite situation. Once you buy a house from them, you will never buy anything from them again. In fact there is a chance that you will demand some extra work from them to fix the inevitable problems that houses come with. This means they need to ​make all their money up front.

There is a large margin on houses in Japan, ​and​ they will basically charge you as much as they can get away with. If you start asking questions, they can easily justify any price they want by producing pages of lists of items with prices to the yen. Most of these item prices will also have large margins either because they have hiked them, because they are list prices and the actual amount they pay suppliers is much less, or because they are over estimating numbers or lengths or weights.

You could pay anything between 10 and 50 million for a house. Paying more will not necessarily increase the resale value of the house. ​In Japan, the value is basically in the land. In most places land is​ a good investment​ because they don't make it any more so its ​value increases over time​. There are some fluctuations, so timing can make a difference, and the exact location could be vulnerable.

Building a house may not be a good investment in financial terms. But in terms of security it gives you a more solid foundation in the community, and also​ more​ psychological​ stability​, so is worth it if you plan to stay in Japan. Find somewhere you want to live!

​Building a cheap house may end up costing a lot more long term in heating and maintenance.​ These costs are usually not taken into consideration when you're building, but the heating bills are also coming out of your bank each month, just like the loan repayments. The difference is that one day the loan repayments will stop, but you're still going to have to pay for heating and cooling. Even when they do tell you how much the energy bills will be, actual heating and cooling costs are typically twice the estimates and simulations.

​Building a Passive House, or at least using Passive House software during the building process, will give a much more reliably estimate, and will allow you to make realistic comparisons between the cost of heating and the initial costs. ​

Friday, 10 November 2017

How to build a house part 5: What exactly do you need to know about heat

Some people spend six years studying for architecture degrees, and it can take a lifetime to build the perfect house. In fact it's now 90 years after Gaudi was knocked over by a tram, and his is still not finished. Admittedly that wasn't your everyday family house, but I digress.

So, you'd like to build a house in the next year, and you're also going to be busy at work, and spending time looking after your family. What do you really need to know?

If you're trying to build a low energy house, two important areas of knowledge are thermodynamics
and economics. Structural knowledge is essential, but if you are working with professional builders in Japan, they should have all the structural knowledge necessary to keep your building standing, probably even through the strongest earthquake ever.

As well as knowledge of what to do, you need to know how to do it, and procedural knowledge is also important. So you need to know how the design process works, but I'll get to that later. First, here are five things you should know about thermodynamics. In most places in the world, the biggest energy use of buildings is heating and cooling.

1. Heat will leave the building by the easiest route in the winter. And it will get in by the easiest route in summer. Heat is a lazy opportunist. This means that you should be worrying about the parts of your walls, ceilings and floors with the least insulation rather than being impressed by the parts with the most insulation. Be aware of the performance of doors and windows, and anything in your thermal envelope that is poorly insulated. There may be conflicts between the structural desires of the builder and the thermodynamic needs, but it is possible to make buildings that are structural sound and thermally right.

2. There is less heat loss as walls get thicker and areas get larger, and more heat loss as temperature
differences increase. So thicker is better for your walls and roof, and smaller is better for the surface area of your house. When you are designing the house, you can't do anything about the temperature. It will get hot and cold outside, and the people inside will want the temperature to be within their comfort zone. If the building does not deliver that comfort zone, the people in the building will use electricity or other fuel to change the temperature.

3. Heat loss depends on the insulation performance of the material in your wall, roof, floors and foundation. Very broadly, metals are the worst insulators, or the best conductors, followed by earthy things, including stone, concrete and glass. Next come plastics, which we can start to call insulators, then fibres, which include wood. Foams are generally better insulators than fibres. In both cases their
performance comes from the excellent insulation credentials of air, but foams also stop the air from moving, and in some cases can use different gases to air. Other gases are better insulators than air.

This table shows the thicknesses of different materials needed to get the same insulation effect as 10 cm (4 inches) of glass wool. Depending on where you are in Japan, you may need the equivalent of 20 or 30 cm of glass wool to make a low-energy building.

Krypton (gas)2 cmthree times better than air
Argon (gas)4 cm
Phenolic foam5 cmtwice as good as glass wool
Air6 cm
Polystyrene, expanded styrofoam8 cm
Glass, wool Insulation10 cmthree times better than wood
Cork, re-granulated11 cm
Hardboard high density38 cm
Wood, oak43 cmthree times better than medium concrete
Polycarbonate48 cm
Concrete, lightweight50 cm
Polyethylene low density, PEL83 cm
Concrete, medium1.4 metresthirty times better than stainless steel
Concrete, dense3.5 metres
Stainless Steel40 metrestwelve times better than aluminium
Brass270 metres
Aluminum500 metresYes, half a kilometre!

4. There are five to ten litres of moisture in the air inside your house, and given any opportunity it will build up and cause condensation, mold or rot. This happens where air is not moving and there is a cold spot or a sharp temperature difference. It will happen where you are not looking, possibly on your favourite coat. This can be stopped with airtight insulation.

5. Reflective coatings are a good idea, since they will reduce the amount of heat radiated in or out of your house. However, most heat is lost through convection or conduction, so the first priority is to add insulation. Things that look shiny may just look shiny.

Bonus: It may be useful to know how a heat pump works. There's a great explanation here using a rubber band refrigerator.


While 500 metres of aluminum has the same insulating performance as 10 cm of fibreglass, metals are not effective as insulators. As the insulation gets thicker, the outside area of the house also gets bigger, so you will more heat, not less heat, as you put on more layers.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Passive House News

​There's another Passive House blog​ here:​

​And news of an affordable Passivhaus ​development in the UK here: ​

And a great story here about Fridtjof Nanse, possible creator of the first Passivehouse, which floated, and went to both the Arctic and Antarctic over a hundred years ago. While the mess on Scott's ship was underneath the ponies they were taking to Antarctica, Amundsen was staying in comfort on the Fram, with high insulation and airtightness. It also had a windmill generating electricity for the lights inside.