It was Samuel Johnson who said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” These times have called this phrase up from history with respect to our response to all the events leading up to and around 9/11. Those who have always loudly proclaimed their patriotism and those who are newly-minted patriots are especially cranked up at this time of the year, July 4th. Since this is issued around that date, I thought it would be appropriate to spout off a little myself. I guess most who read these articles neither expect or want any politics thrown in, but one can’t always have what one wants.
I feel that the most patriotic acts are those that build on the strengths of our country rather than those that call attention to our weaknesses. We are fortunate to have an abundance of various natural resources, and a population that is particularly ingenious and hard working. It seems foolish in the extreme to behave in such a fashion that either ignores or squanders these gifts, but what I see us doing is exactly that, in fact, with such rapidity and self-righteousness that we have traveled from foolishness to tragedy. We find ourselves deeply engaged in a war in the Mid-East for the second time in a dozen years that has the hallmark of “Oil” written all over it, in spite of all the rhetoric about “terrorism” and “democracy.”
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, it is clear that we can only be better off if we reduce (eventually down to zero!) the amount of oil we are importing.
SIPs are made from structural skins and foam cores. The greatest amount of square feet by far are produced with OSB skins. In my book, the guy who invented this stuff should be given some kind of Nobel Sustainability Prize. The material it replaces – Structural I plywood - is made from the prime part of prime trees. The lowest part of the trunk, or “bole” is harvested and “unrolled” like a giant roll of toilet paper to provide the flitches that are then sandwiched together at right angles making the plywood. These are trees we should not be so cavalier with. Like all lumber products, the quality of the specific item is virtually always best if made from old slow growth stock, and invariably worse when made with new fast growth stock – plantation grown or otherwise. The quality of the plywood (in this case) is also species dependent. OSB limits the demand on our best lumber in three ways; the product doesn’t need to be made from whole tree boles, nor does it require old slow growth material, and it has no specific species requirements. In practice this translates to the following changes; construction Structural I plywood was mostly made from old growth douglas fir while OSB is made from aspen and other “weed” or plantation trees or parts of those trees left over from other milling and lumber operations.
While most of the foam cores are made of polystyrene, which like most plastics is made from oil, it is 97 percent air – and then becomes a permanent part of the building which will use less oil for space heating and less fossil fuel for electricity for cooling. So I’m not so upset about using a little oil for this purpose. Should the building have to be recycled, the polystyrene is recyclable into new foam. In the case of polyurethane foam cores, much work has been done to create a substitute made from soybeans. This new bio-foam is on the market in other forms for other applications, but has not yet to the best of my knowledge, been incorporated into SIPs. Can this day be far away? We hope not.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy the great energy efficiency and comfort that SIP buildings provide. Most have found over the years that a SIP translation requires 20% to 50% less energy to heat and cool than its stick twin. Projects we have built that incorporate full passive solar features (including that unsung hero: thermal mass) run on 15% to 25% of the energy required by a comparably sized building of “conventional construction.” Just imagine the size of the potential positive impact this would have if all our buildings were built this way.
Currently the built environment is responsible for the consumption of about 40% of all our energy use. SIP buildings currently account for about 1 percent of all new residences. All new residences account for about half of all new construction that grows our gross heated and cooled square footage by about 10% per year. Our built environment turns over on the average of every 75 years. Fudging this all together it seems to me that we would save about 5% of that 40% each year hitting a plateau in (of course) 75 years that would reduce our energy aggregate for heating and cooling down to about 10% of the current amount. This would just about offset the total amount of our oil imports. Now we would have to challenge the transportation sector to do its part. This patriotism stuff could really help us out!
It is humbling to keep in mind that we are a country that is swimming in waste. We consume about three times the energy use per capita of other fully industrialized “consumer” countries such as Germany and Japan. No one would say that their standards of living are less than our own and many would claim that quality of life metrics would show us to be well below these countries in terms of health, education, and job security. Competitive patriots shouldn’t stand for this!
Well we in the building community can at least do our part by changing our material selection and technologies to the greenest we can imagine. This July 4th sit down and write a letter to your local paper telling all you know about SIPs. Put it in the context of helping your community and country to improve and maintain a sustainable built environment that is healthful to live in and responsive to the issues of our time. I guarantee that they’ll print it and you will get a lot of positive response. Let’s see if we can really start the SIP ball rolling – for the genuine good of our country.