Ellen Honigstock Architect PC launches the Toeprint Project

30 01 2009


Welcome to the Toeprint Project.

Toeprint definition: a very tiny footprint; a small part of your larger footprint.
Project definition: a temporary collective endeavor involving research and design, carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.

The Toeprint Project will be a year-long process meant to bridge the gap between the desire to make our homes and businesses more sustainable and actually having the tools and capability to do so.

Each week for 52 weeks, we will publish a different strategy aimed towards making buildings more efficient, durable, healthier for the occupants or otherwise more sustainable. We will interview experts and bring you relevant up-to-date information about pricing, the pros, cons and trade-offs inherent in various strategies and even offer discounts and giveaways whenever we can make it happen.

We chose the period of a year because while reducing energy, water and material consumption, it is very difficult to chart progress on a daily or weekly or even monthly basis. Stick with us and we will provide metrics for you to measure your progress throughout the Project.

Who are we and why are we doing this?

We are a small architectural firm based in Brooklyn in New York City. Our residential and commercial projects are generally on the small side and it seems like no matter how green we make them, the resulting improvements to the environment are barely noticeable. We know that reducing consumption of resources is not an easy process. It takes work and commitment and plenty of tools and expertise.

Over the past 18 months, we have published various findings that interest us at Brooklyn Green but our reach was limited. We want to share our knowledge in order to have a more significant impact on the environment.

We often give talks teaching people how to make their homes and lifestyles more sustainable and the one response we almost always get is an appreciative thank you for “putting all that information in one place”.

We’re firm believers in well-roundedness so the Toeprint Project will touch on areas of Energy Conservation, Water Conservation, Community, Food, Health, Indoor Air Quality, Material & Resource Consumption, Water Conservation and Zero Waste.

As you will see, the strategies will range from minor lifestyle changes to fairly complex infrastructural analyses. We hope to make all the strategies interesting and accessible to anyone without previous expertise in these areas so as to “spread the sustainability” and reduce each of our carbon footprints to a mere toeprint.

You can subscribe to the feed here. Join us!

Ellen Honigstock, RA, LEED AP
Ellen Honigstock Architect PC


Teen Green: Ice Skating Efficiently

8 12 2008

Winter’s coming, which means that uncountable New Yorkers will be putting on their skates and skating around in endless circles on the city’s many rinks. But when skating, people tend to forget one important factor about the rink: it takes a ridiculous amount of energy to keep them frozen. In fact, it is estimated that a typical small rink requires about $30,000 worth of electricity a month to operate. Not only is this expensive, but it readily contributes to Global Warming as well. The constant energy that is required to keep the rink frozen makes ice skating one of the most energy intensive forms of recreation there is out there.

The Natural History Museum is doing something about this. Opened to the public until February 28th, the “Polar Rink” is open for business. This is not any ordinary skating rink, though. It is made out of a recyclable synthetic surface (100% recyclable and non-toxic materials), still giving skaters the impression of skating on ice. This rink is more efficient because it requires no maintenance or refrigeration, the risk of melting is eliminated.

If you’re worried that this surface won’t give you the full ice skating experience, trust me, it really does feel like skating on ice; it’s almost surreal how realistic it is.

To get details on ticket pricing and business hours, go to the Polar Rink Website.

Results from Energy Audit

7 12 2008

As you can imagine, I was so excited to receive the results from the
energy audit we had done on November 4th. Jimmy from ASK construction came over to review the list of recommended measures and the related costs.

As I mentioned in the previous post about the audit, ASK came to us very highly recommended so I’m not particularly concerned about being taken advantage of but since the repairs will be completed by the same company that performed the testing, there is a serious opportunity for customer-gouging. I’ll put in a call to NYSERDA to see what their response is about this. But I digress.

Let’s start with the related to Health|Safety work. The following measures are related to isolating the boiler room and insuring adequate fresh air for the equipment.

  1. Install 1 fire-rated door at Boiler Room
  2. Seal ceiling of Boiler Room
  3. Install fresh air louver (required since we’re isolating the Boiler Room)
  4. Install additional Carbon Monoxide/Smoke detectors

The total for this work is $2,065. These are all very important items we have been meaning to do for a long time and I’m so happy we’re finally doing then. Since this work is not directly related to energy conservation, it is not eligible for rebates or incentives (more about this later).

Now to the sexier stuff: Energy Conservation Measures:

  1. Insulate Main Roof with cellulose to R-43 value (including the roofs of the front and rear previous additions which are really cold in the winter). Cost: $1,890.00
  2. Insulate crawl space at Basement below the front room with High Density foam to R30 (foam allows it to stick to the underside of the ceiling). Cost: $1,350.00
  3. Insulate exposed basement wall with cellulose to R-12 value. Cost: $140.00
  4. Air sealing including: Seal at back wall of meter room, Install new interior vestibule door and install louver at exterior Basement entry door to make a weatherproof vestibule at the Basement, weatherstrip at front entrance door, close up and insulate existing opening at 2nd floor ceiling. Cost: $1,350.00
  5. Install CFL’s (compact fluorescent lights), I’ll specify them after I figure out which ones we need. Cost: $250.00
  6. Replace the Kitchen exterior door with new door and storm door. Cost $1,250.00
  7. Install chimney cap & liner. Cost: $250.00
  8. Remove and repair roof at abandoned skylight. Cost: $300.00
  9. Replace two sections of bent gutter that was not draining properly. Cost: $1,250.00

We’re also going to add an air exchanger for approx. $1,200.00. We currently have an in-line exhaust fan which is basically a fan inside a little duct located in an 8″ diameter hole in the Basement wall that sucks air out of our house when it is turned on. The fan is uninsulated and pulls unconditioned air back into the house through various existing openings. An air exchanger is a mechanical ventilation system that exhausts all the air in a particular area of the house replaces it with fresh air 6x/ day (these are called air changes). Since most of the year, the air outside is too hot or too cold to bring into the house directly without heating or cooling it and thus adding energy costs, an air exchanger will pre-heat or -cool the air to allow fresh air to come in without terribly impacting the heating/cooling system and will help remove moisture from the Basement.

The sub-total for all this work is approx. $11,295, less the $350 we paid at the audit for a total of $10,945. Of this, $8,880 is eligible for incentives as follows:

National Grid: 20% of work up to max. $750

NYSERDA (Tier 3): 20% cash back up to max. $4,500

$8,880 – $750 (National Grid) – $1,776 (NYSERDA 20% of $8,880) = $6,354.00 for the energy conservation work + $2,065 for the Health | Safety work for a total of $8,419.00

That is a hefty savings for this amount of critical work. As for energy savings, they calculate approximately $489/year in electrical and gas savings for a payback of about 13 years which will certainly come sooner as energy prices rise.

More about the incentives:

NYSERDA has 3 tiers of incentives:

If your project includes 2 of the following types of measures, the incentive is 10% cash back.

If your project includes 3 of the following types of measures, the incentive is 15% cash back.

If your project includes 5 of the following types of measures, the incentive is 20% cash back.

  1. Air sealing
  2. Insulation
  3. Domestic hot water
  4. Heating equipment
  5. Windows and eligible doors
  6. Mechanical ventilation
  7. Appliances
  8. Lighting and fixtures
  9. Distribution system
  10. Cooling equipment.

Hitting 5 (or more) of these categories of measures is not difficult if you have an old leaky house like ours.

In addition, since we’re doing this work during 2009, we’ll be eligible for an additional $500 Federal Residential Energy Efficiency Tax Credit but we won’t see that money until 2010 tax time.

And they gave me a nifty report – all the site-specific items were incorrect though (age of home, size of home, age and efficiency of boiler) but these items were not relevant to the repairs so I’m putting this down to Architect’s persnickityness.

Stay tuned. Repairs expected first week of January.

Insulation Project: Comprehensive Energy Audit

6 11 2008

blowerdoorJimmy and John from ASK Construction came over to do a Home Performance Energy Audit (a comprehensive energy and safety inspection) of my home.

First they did a fairly quick survey inside and out to determine the overall volume of the house, including the size of all the windows and doors.

The Audit was divided into 2 parts: Energy Efficiency and Health|Safety.

The items they looked for in the Health|Safety category are fairly obvious but are often overlooked including:

  • Adequate Carbon Monoxide (CO) coverage: in addition to having a sufficient number of detectors, each needs to be located such that if one of them is activated, all the occupants will hear the alarm, no matter where they are in the house.  Suggested locations are: at the top of the Basement stairs in case there is a problem with the mechanical equipment and just outside the kitchen because when you turn on your oven, carbon monoxide levels of 700-2000 parts per million can accumulate until they are vented away by your hood exhaust.
  • They checked all the mechanical equipment in the house to see if there was any carbon monoxide (CO) leakage (there wasn’t any), and that there is adequate fresh air intake and exhaust (there’s plenty).
  • They checked to make sure all mechanical gas-fired equipment was enclosed in a fire-rated room (this item needs a little work).
  • They checked that the bathroom exhaust fans were working properly.  An adequate bathroom exhaust fan should run for 20 minutes after a shower to remove the moisture from the room. (Ours are pretty good – loud but powerful).
  • At the Basement, where we have a de-humidifier running all year round, they tried to determine where the moisture was entering from (I think it’s from along the side garden wall – more difficult to fix than if it was just the rear wall at the backyard) and we had a long discussion about what kind of exhaust fan to install.

Now for Energy Efficiency (!)

Heating/Cooling system: First they had me turn the thermostats for the furnace way up so they could check if there was any leakage in the air ducts.  Turns out that there was a 50% drop in pressure when they added up the measured supply of air in each room.  Unfortunately, these ducts are concealed in the ceiling – this wastes a lot of energy in both the heating and cooling seasons because a lot of conditioned air is wasted heating and cooling the duct enclosure so expect to see big holes in the ceiling sometime soon so we can get in there and repair the ducts.

Air Infiltration: Jimmy and John tested all the windows to make sure they were operational and then closed up all the doors and windows for the blower door test – that’s what is going on in the picture above.  The idea is to close up the house and then measure the volume of air that leaks in from openings in the building envelope and locate the source of those air leaks so that they can be corrected.  The red fabric shown in the picture is stretched over a temporary frame in the door (you can sort of see the digital gauge attached to the edge of the door that measures the air flow).  Jimmy said the air leakage in the house didn’t seem so bad but he wanted to do the calculations back in his office to confirm.

We have an opening in the ceiling in one of the bedroom closets in order to access some valves and it was totally screwing up the test so they taped the door closed to get the proper seal.  Apparently, it’s openings like this that can suck out your heat in the winter and conditioned air in the summer.  Closing up this opening will be a high priority.

Windows: John mentioned that our aluminum windows with double-pane glass, circa 1990’s could be improved.  I know that vinyl or wood windows are more efficient (vinyl and wood are better insulators than aluminum) and new double-pane glass comes with Low-E coatings and can be filled with argon glass for added efficiency but these types of new windows are VERY expensive and I don’t think they will fit in our budget for a while.  In the meantime, we will invest in high-efficiency double-honeycomb shades to better insulate at the windows.

Insulation: John made a small hole in the wall adjacent to the garden and found that it was PACKED with fiberglass insulation.  This is very good news.


As for costs, the audit cost $350 which I believe will be refundable by the Home Performance with Energy Star Program if we do more than $2,000 worth of weatherization work (which seems likely).  Having completed the audit, we will now be eligible to take advantage of the incentives offered by the program which can be up to 20 per cent cash back on the total amount of eligible measures, plus federal and state tax credits.  The whole point of this exercise is to improve the efficiency of our home so we should also expect to see a large cost savings in our heating and cooling costs.

I expect the full report in about 10 days, after which we will start the corrective work to repair all deficient conditions.

Carbon-free cooling

21 07 2008

The dreaded triple-H’s are upon us (hazy, hot & humid for those not from here).

There was a brown-out this weekend in Brooklyn that stopped half a block from where we live so we decided to try and NOT use our air conditioning to see if we could remain somewhat comfortable.

What even allowed this possibility is that we finally rigged up the vented skylight (pictured above). It was installed 2 1/2 years ago but we finally hooked up the electric rain sensor cable which supposedly closes the skylight if it starts to rain. We have yet to confirm that it works. The idea is that as hot air rises, it exits the house at the top which pulls in cooler air from the windows on the floors below.

We opened all the windows and turned on all the ceiling fans (we have one in each room) and it wasn’t too bad. In the mornings, it was downright delightful to hear the birds out the open windows and feel a cool morning breeze.

However, on those beastly days that are so hot that your bed is warmer than you are when you get in, no amount of moving air around will keep you cool without air conditioning.

Here is a site full of good ideas to keep cool. I don’t know about showing up for work in a wet shirt though….

Passive Solar Design – Interview with experts at Sealander Studio

1 04 2008


Robyn and Mike Sealander, of Sealander Studio in Brooklin, Maine are wonderful architects, builders and experts in passive solar design. They have agreed to answer some questions about what is involved in this process. See our interview below.

Ellen Honigstock (in black):

Hi Robyn,

As you know, we are designing a (very) small house in Indianapolis. We want it to be as green as possible so we are proposing that it be designed with the principles of passive solar design in mind. My personal experience with this type of work is limited given that I’m an urban architect through and through and we just don’t have those types of opportunities in our work here in good old Brooklyn (NY, not Maine!).

I know that siting is the most important aspect of the schematic design. How do you usually start the process?

Robyn Sealander (in green): For us, the first step in any design–before picking up a pen or firing up the computer–is to get inside the head of our client, to try to get a thorough understanding of their lifestyle and expectations. We will usually have several casual conversations to get a general familiarity with new clients and then follow up with a series of specific questions. For example, we need to know how they expect to spend their time while in the house:

  • Do they work during the day and are usually at home only during evenings?
  • Are they avid gardeners or crafters?
  • Do they work from a home office?
  • Do they entertain often?
  • Do they love to cook?
  • How old are their children or grandchildren?
  • What are their favorite family activities?

All of these questions can (and do) lead us to an understanding of the general activity-based requirements for the house. We feel this step is essential for several reasons.

First of all, anyone can build a house that would be suitable for anyone else–builders churn out hundreds of these every day. Hiring an architect and designing and building your own home gives clients the opportunity to get exactly what they need and want, to have a home conform to the requirements of their lifestyle, instead of the other way around. I mean, we all grew up in houses, right? We all know what goes into a house, so how hard can it be? Well, we think it is worth the extra time to really get this right, to fully understand what the essence of dwelling is for any client.

Concurrent with this effort is a thorough understanding of the site itself. We create a 3D model of the site using Revit, a BIM (Building Information Modelling) software package. We document the physical aspects of the site: topography, solar orientation, existing trees, flowering bushes, large rocks, marshy areas, ponds, whatever. We also document the experience of being at the site–is there a view, either desirable or unsightly? Do the neighbors use crabshells for garden mulch? (I would guess this is fairly unique to Maine, but try to avoid neighbors who use crabshells for garden mulch. The stench in summer is supremely foul.)

We analyze the site for its load capacity–what type of construction would be most suited to the ground? Lots of land here is solid granite ledge. Where will run-off go? Will it need to be diverted? Is part of the site currently or formerly a garden?

Once we feel comfortable that we know both the client and the site, the initial schematic design can begin. The key to effective passive solar design is a melding of the requirements and conditions explored during the pre-design phase. Depending on the client, spaces sometimes shake out into clearly defined dichotomies: day/night; public/private; front/back warm/cool.

The process we use is similar to a block-diagram method, with volumes of spaces for the client’s activities arranged (and endlessly re-arranged) until all of the design criteria are met simultaneously. For example, this might mean that a “day” space, like a home office for a telecommuter, needs to receive maximum daylight during 3 seasons, must be able to see the view, and must be adjacent to the entry, the family area and a bathroom. Each programmatic activity is analyzed to determine its adjacencies, its optimal orientation, its correct spatial volume. Obviously one major goal is to maximize solar gain during the daylight hours, but that usually doesn’t mean simply a south-facing wall of windows.

EH: I completely agree that the siting of the house is just as important as the program in generating the schematic layout. At what point in the design process do the technical aspects of passive solar design come into play?

RS: Solar design is by nature a technical activity. Think of it like structural design. While we can be seat-of-the pants for a little bit, we are really interested in knowing that sun angle, percent glazing, and other parameters are going to be satisfied. Solar design constrains the design process from the beginning, just as structural design does.

EH: I understand that in Maine, most people use passive solar for winter heating purposes but that it is also possible to achieve summer cooling in warmer climates. Could you speak to that?

Mike Sealander (in blue): Yes, you simply design to avoid solar gain. Overhangs, fenestration on the north side, thermal mass, well-insulated roof deck. In Maine, we get a lot of solar gain in the summer. As it turns out, a well-insulated roof goes a long way in cooling a house in summer as well as keeping it warm in the winter.

EH: Do you have a sense of what portion of the heating and cooling costs a passive system can cover? For example: is it crazy to expect that a passive solar house can be completely off the grid as far as heating & cooling costs go?

MS: You can be completely off the grid by using supplemental heat from a wood stove, for instance. The nice thing about being on the grid is not heat; it’s electricity for lights, computers, dishwasher, washing machine, that sort of thing. It takes a big lifestyle commitment to be off the electrical grid. It’s a lot easier to live without direct use of carbon fuels, except for cooking. I hate electric ovens. However, domestic hot water from solar panels is common in Maine, so most of the domestic carbon fuel use up here is by choice, not by necessity.

EH: Are there materials that you prefer that work better with passive solar design. Conversely, are there materials (besides crabshell mulch of course) that you would avoid?

MS: We try to work with the best glazing systems we can find. We also use a lot of caulks, sealants, insulation, house-wrap, that sort of thing. In terms of finish material, there is not much of a difference between one flooring product over the other. For hydronic floors, we may avoid carpet, but we don’t feel we have to use tile, for instance.

EH: Is a passive solar house more or less expensive to construct than a conventionally-built house?

MS: No.

EH: How much do passive solar design principles overlap with other “green” or
“sustainable” practices?

MS: I don’t think you can be green without considering passive solar, especially with single family dwellings. In a high-rise, you may not have much choice in the matter.

EH: Do you have photos of projects you have done?


RS: Above (and at the top of the post) are 2 photos of a project we call Meadow Lane. On this house, 40 out of the 47 openings (doors and windows) face south for maximum solar gain. The design of the deep overhang on the south end of the family room was tuned to the window heights on that wall to take full advantage of the solar orientation. In the summer, the overhang protects the openings from the rays of the sun. In the winter, it is desirable for the sun to enter the house and the tall openings allow daylight to penetrate the entire length of the house, south to north.

EH: Thanks!

Wind Power – Totally cool tool.

11 03 2008

I came across this tool from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) to calculate the average wind velocity wherever you live.  Once you enter your address, you can see a color coded map which shows which wind speed zone you live in.

The site also gives you accurate-ish calculations about the installed cost of solar and wind power after tax rebates and credits.

I just started researching residential wind energy for a client.  It’s so interesting.

Stay tuned.