EcoVative 2010: Building it Green in Portland

This weekend the Portland Built Crew (a force of one) spent some time at the Portland Home Builder’s Association green conference, EcoVative.

The show was an interesting blend of educational seminars, presentations, and vendor exhibitions. Classes spanned a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Building Super Energy-Efficient Homes Without Breaking the Bank
  • Porous Pavement Options
  • The Energy Trust’s Energy Performance Score (EPS)
  • Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
  • High Performance Wall Systems

Overall, the curriculum was quite comprehensive. Attendees included veteran green builders, as well as those new to the industry. For builders looking to capitalize on the green building movement, this event presented an invaluable learning opportunity.

One of the great features of the show was the vendor exhibition hall. There were a number of manufacturers, as well as representatives from groups like Earth Advantage and Energy Trust. It was an excellent opportunity to talk one-on-one with industry experts.


In terms of prodducts, local supplier EcoHaus showed off some great paneling made from reclaimed glue-lam beams. This stuff was just gorgeous, and could be used for all sorts of architectural detailing. Anna from EcoHaus said that some customers were even using it for cabinet fronts.

Another interesting product comes from just down the road in Oregon City. EcoWarm is a hydronic radiant board system that takes the place of gypcrete or concrete as the substrate for PEX tubing. At the Live/Work project, we looked at a similar option from a company called “WarmBoard.” Ultimately, WarmBoard’s pricing was astronomically high and fell out of the running. EcoWarm is a similar product, but their pricing is unclear – the painfully bad website has some pricing info, but it’s frustrating for the homeowner. Hopefully, they’ll improve things as the company grows.

On a final note, I’d like to mention one of Portland Built’s Partners, Medallion Industries. Medallion brought several eco-friendly products to the expo, including fiberglass windows from Andersen, triple glazed windows from Atrium, and Serious Window’s advanced fiberglass offerings. If you’re considering new construction, LEED, or Passive House standards, take a look at the Medallion Website.

Wal-Mart: Built in Portland?

As reported in the Oregonian and the Portland Business Journal yesterday, Wal-Mart plans to expand its operations in North Portland. The plan is to build a new 86,000-square-foot store in the Hayden Meadows area, just off of I-5. Many of you will know this area – it’s near the Portland Meadows racetrack and Lowe’s home improvement (and, not coincidentally, just over the river from our low-tax-paying friends in Vancouver)

Lowes-MapWal-Mart’s had a tough time establishing a beach-head in Portland. Attempts at a building in Sellwood and Hayden Island were thwarted when local neighborhood associations and politicians joined forces. As of today, Wal-Mart has only one store in Portland, located near SE 82nd and Holgate.

Here are some highlights from the articles:

  • Wal Mart is touting its environmental commitment and job creation. According to the Business Journal, “The store will create roughly 300 new jobs and feature sustainable features such as high-efficiency LED lighting.”
  • The Oregonian also talks about Wal-Mart’s efforts to win over Portland Mayor, Sam Adams: “…company executives have been trying for months to win over Adams by pushing an environmental makeover and increased pay and benefits.”

Obviously, Wal-Mart deserves some serious scrutiny about it’s labor and environmental record. But what struck me most about these articles is the fact that Wal-Mart plans to, “raze two vacant buildings to make room for the store, which would be just a short drive for Vancouver residents.” (Oregonian)

Big Box Wasteland

Now, if you’ve ever been to the Hayden Meadows area, you know what it’s all about: Big Box stores. There are no quaint stores or cute coffee shops to be overrun by the Arkansas giant. No – Hayden Meadows is actually a wasteland of EMPTY boxes and failed chain stores.

What I find ironic is the fact that Wal-Mart wants to be an environmental ally by…tearing down two buildings! It’s not clear if they have a plan for recycling the demolished materials, but I’m guessing they will quickly level the existing facilities and add the rubble to a nearby landfill. Even if they manage to reclaim the used concrete, the cost in terms of embodied energy is incredibly high.

A Better Plan

What I’d like to see is some serious design innovation. Could we integrate one of the existing buildings (heck, how about two of them?) into the new design? What about offering a road-map for new buildings that includes a strategy for decommission? Maybe we turn the old “boxes” into some sort of community attraction that brings visitors (and new customers) to this economically and aesthetically blighted region? Or, maybe, we figure out a way to bring nature back into these asphalt catastrophes. I don’t have the answer, but simply repeating the same idea (build a box, tear it down, build a box) seems like a huge waste of resources and opportunity.

The Dead Boxes

As part of the research for this article, I found a few sites with incredible imagery. Top of the list goes to the work by Brian Ulrich, who has produced “Ghosts of Shopping Past,” an amazing visual account of abandoned malls, shopping centers, and big box stores. Here are a few of the photos from his collection:


Circuit City?

There’s a fantastic interview with Brian on the website The Morning News. Check it out, along with (a really ugly site with some interesting information).

Side Note: Personally, I’m all for converting these spaces into giant volleyball facilities where I can go play….but that’s just me.

Post photo: Wal-Mart in La Junta Colorado. Photo credit, Brave New films

Insulation: Calculating Your Cost and Savings

One of the big revolutions in building technology has been the significant increase in insulation. And I’m not just talking going from R-13 walls to R-21. No, what I mean are the super-insulated buildings you see in both LEED and Passive projects (often with walls as high as R-40!)

The revelation, of course, is that energy is an increasingly expensive commodity, and that insulation is one of the cheapest, easiest to use building materials available. Simple changes to the design and framing can have a dramatic impact on energy use…to a point where homes can be heated by the equivalent of a hair dryer! Yes, that’s right – imagine heating your home with just a few hundred watts…


How much is enough (or is there such a thing as too much)?

Of course we all have a budget, so determining the “right” amount of insulation is critical. At the Live/Work project, we were recently faced with this dilemma. The plans called for 2 1/2″ thick insulation under the slab perimeter, and 1″ in the field. Since this idea of multiple thicknesses for insulation seemed somewhat silly (it was easier to just insulate the same thickness across the field) we ordered 2″ for everywhere under the slab.

However, after giving this some more thought and research, we considered adding more than one layer of foam. The question was: how much makes sense?

Do the Math

To help decide how much foam we needed, we performed a series of calculations based on the loss of heat per hour (BTU) and assumed a number of heating days per year. Here’s how we started:

  • Assume 50 degrees outside, 70 degrees inside (20 degree differential equals “Delta T”)
  • 1000 sq ft of surface
  • Formula to calculate BTU loss: 1/R-Value x Delta T x Area.

Now, we were planning on using 2″ board across the surface – this would provide us with an insulation value of R-10. Pretty much standard building code these days. However, passive houses use as much as 16″ of foam (R-80), so we needed to dig a little deeper in our analysis.

  • 2″ Pink Board (R-10): 1/10 x 20° x 1,000 sq ft = 2,000 BTU/hr – This was our baseline
  • 4″ Pink Board (R-20): 1/20 x 20° x 1,000 sq ft = 1,000 BTU/hr

Ok, so I’m not sure what a 1000 BTUs looks like, but loosing 1000 of them per hour sounds significant. But what about the cost?

  • 2″ Pink Board = $1,097 per 1000 sq. ft.
  • Subtract the cost of gravel that will no longer be required under the slab ($216)
  • Total additional cost for 2″ board = $877

Next, we needed to calculate the cost of a BTU. This is a little tricky, since the gas company measures in “gas units” and “therms.” So, to avoid getting even more geeky than what we’ve discussed so far, it boils down to this:

  • 1 Therm = 100,000 BTUs.
  • In Portland, using NW Natural, at current rates, the cost of 1000 BTUs per hour is roughly .015 cents (based on NW Natural’s recent rate reduction – it had been closer to .017 cents per 1000)
  • If you’re using electricity, based on the rates in our NE neighborhood, your cost is roughly .027 cents per hour.

The next calculation gets even more subjective and is based on the number of heating days per season (in other words, out of 365 days per year, how many days require you to use the home’s heating system).

  • Based on a 150-day season, running the system 24 hours a day, our annual heat loss cost is $54 (gas) at 1000 BTUs per hour.
  • At that cost, and factoring in the $877 for extra foam, it would take us 16 years to obtain payback on our additional 2″ of foam.

In the end, we decided to split the difference and go with 3″ of insulation, achieved by two staggered sheets of 1″ and 2″ foam. This decision was made for two reasons. First, going to 4 full inches of foam was a bit of a budget buster. With the 16 year payback, it was a tough sell, especially considering that this math was based on several factors:

  • We’re assuming 24-hour occupancy of the lower floor. Since the lower area will be used primarily as an art studio, its use will be much more limited in duration.
  • We’re assuming a 70 degree constant temperature. In reality, a working studio space doesn’t need to be nearly this warm, as the act of working and moving around the space diminishes the need for higher temperatures.

One of the other reasons we decided to go with the 1″+2″ foam combo was that it would allow us the benefit of staggered seams. In other words, by overlapping the sheets of foam, we’d achieve a benefit of greater vapor resistance than if we had just used a single layer of 2″ or even 4″ foam.

Additional Resources

There’s a lively discussion of this topic over at the Green Building Advisor. Just as we discovered, there is a tipping point for insulation where the cost of installation starts to outweigh the benefits. Other resources include (of all things) a great page from Fairbanks Natural Gas which shows how to compare the cost of natural gas to other heating sources. Of course, if you are factoring in CO2 emissions, there’s more to consider than just dollars and sense.

And, to get some perspective, here’s a photo of what 16″ of foam looks like (Photo credit:

16" of Foam Used Under the Slab

Portland Metal Roofs

I’ve always thought metal was the creme-de-la-creme of roofing materials. Metal roofs last forever (estimates of 30-50 years and beyond), require little maintenance, and can be recycled at the end of their life. Plus, metal roofs aren’t made with petroleum products, which puts them squarely in the A+ column for green, sustainable products.

Where to Start Your Search for Metal Roofs in Portland

A quick Google search will reveal a number of companies that will roof your house in steel or aluminum. Metal roofs come is a variety of profiles from standing seam to more traditional shakes. Personally, I prefer the more modern look of the standing-seam roofs, but owners of older homes will most likely gravitate towards a traditional (shingle-replica) solution. Here are some of the results if I simply put in a generic search like, “Portland Roofing”


I’ve noticed many web sites come up under the search term, “metal roof” but lack any concrete examples of actual installations. The other problem in finding a contractor is that many roofing companies are still operating as if it’s 1986 – i.e. pre-internet. Their websites are poorly produced and lack good customer testimonials highlighting their excellent service. Sadly, many of these roofing contractors don’t understand how many people use the internet to find someone to help with their roofing needs. In fact, just to give you an idea of how many people are looking for roofers, take a look at this graphic (data pulled from Google’s Keyword Tool):


As you can see, there are a LOT of people looking for roofing contractors in Portland! By my estimation, the number of people conducting searches based on the term “Portland roofing” is between 50,000-70,000 per year. And, if you were to add in other, more generic terms like “roofing,” you’d probably hit six figures.

So why does this matter? Well for two reasons:

  • If you are a contractor, you’d better pay attention to your website and how people find you through Google. You’re missing huge profits by relying solely on word of mouth, yard signs, and advertising.
  • If you are a homeowner, architect, or someone who buys roofing services you’ll probably need to be very diligent when selecting a contractor. Because this industry is “behind the curve,” often the best vendors will be hard to find through internet-based searches.

Case and point: My neighbor recently re-roofed her house with a gorgeous metal roof. The contractor who did the work, did a fantastic job. You can tell from the attention to detail on the flashing just how good their work was. When I went to look the contractor up on the internet, however, their site was riddled with broken links and missing pages. If I were a typical homeowner (and knew nothing about roof technology) I’d wonder, “why is this web site not working? Why aren’t there pictures of the contractor’s work on the site?” That feeling of doubt might make me look elsewhere.

Finding Contractors Beyond the Web

Fortunately, there are other options besides the web. One way to find a good roofer is to talk to a reliable builder or general contractor. For example, I recently spoke with Stephen Aiguier of Green Hammer Building Contractors. I know Stephen hires top-notch guys and works on the kind of projects where “attention to detail” is the norm. From his experience, he was able to recommend a roofer that he had worked with on previous projects. The next step would be to call on the roofer and ask for references and addresses of houses that he had roofed. Visiting past projects is an absolute must before hiring any contractor.

The Live/Work project will be selecting a roofing contractor in the coming weeks, and Portland Built is looking for a partner in the roofing services segment. If you know of any great candidates, let us know in the comments below.

Photo Credit Englert, Inc.