A glimpse at the ideas re-shaping building design from the science up

Passive house image

I wrote the cover story to the special September edition of “Green Building + Design,” a design-porn glossy that doesn’t shy away from hard questions about its subjects. (I, for one, balk at the consumerist trend to “be green.”)

I wrote about the mantra–and standards–called Passive House, which uses modelling and analysis to incorporate remarkable efficiencies without breaking the bank.

In choosing photos, of course, the magazine has to cater to its audience, which craves pricey aesthetics.

Here’s the PDF of the 10-page spread, but in case you want to get a feel before jumping in, I’ve pasted the leading paragraphs below.

When you’re old and frail, or maybe when your kids are old and frail, textbooks may refer back to the early 2000s as the time when we started applying the same rigorous science to the design of our built environment that for a hundred years already we had put to work in our cars, entertainment, and communication. Those future readers might wonder, “What took us so long?”

Nobody is doing more to advance building science today than the people behind Passive House. They advocate super-tight envelopers, extreme insulation and specialty windows, window placement that accounts for solar gain, and heat-exchanger ventilators and heat-recapturing appliances. They’re thoroughly mindful of thermal bridging–properly insulating I-beams from the outside, for example, since in the winter they suck heat out.

One of the Passive House movement’s most significant achievements is analytical software that ties together all these techniques and materials and provides predictive power based on real analyses of houses built before.

For the privilege of saving 6 cents a month, please pay $50

The City of Springfield says no one has applied to its new program to award a kind of tax break to those who minimize runoff from their properties. (The city’s often forced to process said runoff as sewage, an expensive proposition.)

Like very few others, I read the credit manual from cover to cover. It has people paying a $50 application fee for the chance to save an average of 6 cents a month. Even the guy in charge of the program said he understood why people weren’t applying. My story posted the question: why write a manual at all?

I can understand trying to “protect the revenue stream,” as the city says, but a lot of our readers thought this went above and beyond.

False info from a source, and how we dealt with it

As it turns out, my source for a story that ran in Tuesday’s paper — the Ohio EPA — gave me incorrect information.

To compensate, we’re correcting the original story on the web (although it looks like the sub-headline hasn’t been changed) and we’re running a second story in the same place, 1A downpage, that clarifies the facts.

Here’s the link to that story.

Like This American Life recently, the key concepts of my story remain essentially the same. But unlike Ira Glass, we didn’t beat our chests and ask for forgiveness.

I think my editors did the right thing. Daisey’s story could have been corroborated by scores of possible sources. Ohio EPA is the ONLY source for information here, aside from the corporate polluter itself. If we can’t trust the state EPA, who can we trust?

Normally, people at the agency are right on the money. I’ve probably spoken with them on 15 stories, relaying hundreds or thousands of facts, and this is the first one someone’s had an issue with.

But in this business, even a single fact gone awry is a big deal.

That’s why, in the coming days, we may write another story detailing what parts of the process failed, why, and how a few experts would fix them.

Coverage of anti-fracking group

Three members of an anti-fracking group based in Yellow Springs have traveled around the state and the country to teach others about the possible dangers of fracking and to join protests against it. Photo by Brandon Smith-Hebson, used courtesy of Dayton Daily News.

To accompany a Sunday front-page centerpiece on fracking, once again I joined the Dayton Daily News staff to report the fracking opposition emanating from Yellow Springs.

It was hard to be super specific about these people’s concerns in such a brief story (after all, they’re true scholars of natural gas drilling). But I think I communicated the the essence of their angst. Here’s a PDF of the same. My piece appeared on page 11 of the “A” section.

Pollution hasn’t invaded drinking water wells, testing in response to our article shows


Today’s paper features the results of health district tests of private drinking water wells near pollution seeping from a New Carlisle landfill.

Good news: the comprehensive VOC test returned negative results, so people aren’t drinking vinyl chloride.

The landfill is a U.S. EPA Superfund site, and is leaching the carcinogen into the aquifer at hazardous concentrations.

The health district tested the wells in response to my article that publicized a portion of an Ohio Department of Health report. That report said that no one could be sure whether the pollution hadn’t migrated into residential wells by now.

New Carlisle landfill on ODH’s watch list

An employee speaks with the owner of Scarff’s Wholesale Nursery. Scarff’s drilled four wells in an attempt to avoid pollution seeping from a nearby landfill, and still had to be connected to city water. Photo by Marshall Gorby, courtesy of the Springfield News-Sun

Big splash on the front of today’s News-Sun: my story on a landfill just south of New Carlisle. People may be drinking carcinogenic water and not know it, because years into EPA’s Superfund process, no nearby wells have been tested.

An obscure Ohio Department of Health tipped us off to the story. They’re concerned.

The aquifer there is slow-moving — imagine water moving through a jar of gravel and sand — but it serves something like two million people. Water activists around here get pretty fired up about it.

Vinyl chloride is the chemical they’re most worried about. It’s a potent carcinogen.

A setback for the truck-maker in Navistar v. EPA

International trucks on display at a show in China, April 2011. Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user SimonQ.

In a followup to my story last month, I just wrote about a development in Navistar v. EPA, the lawsuit that the truck company with the local manufacturing arm filed against the environment agency.

How this setback for Navistar will affect the overall suit, if at all, I’m not sure. I don’t have a cadre of legal experts yet in my contacts. I could have lifted a quote from Law360, but a full subscription — the only option available — is out of reach for our newsroom.

Yet, I used the service to get the initial information. Without it, I wouldn’t have known to do the story.

This is I think the third time I’ve used Law360’s free case law updates (narrowed to the environment subject area) to find a story. A couple months back, my editors and I tried to subscribe, so that I could read full articles. It’s just not worth it. I think they said $1,200 a month. With their free daily updates, I can just read the first few graphs and get the case number for PACER, circumventing the news company. Obviously the most valuable thing is the timely news update itself, and they’ve giving it away.

My editors would love to pay Law360 on a per-article basis, or at least on a single-user basis. No dice. The company should really consider a less-costly option for smaller-market news reporters.