Thanks to a pointer from Claudia Thiem I found this short exploration of the origins and form of Red Vienna — a few decades between the world wars when the city of Vienna had a robust social democratic government, and almost city-state like autonomy. They decided to implement constructive socialist policies at the scale of the city. But it apparently wasn’t just socialism happening in the city, rather it was a more comprehensive leftist urbanism. I’ve heard a lot about this period, but haven’t found a good English language text to read yet. If you have one to suggest, please let me know!
Red Vienna seems especially interesting in its contrast to other socialist development schemes. Austrian socialism was explicitly pro-city, rather than romanticizing and idealizing the rural peasant (or yeoman farmer… if you prefer Thomas Jefferson). What happens when leftists wholeheartedly embrace the city as their platform for change instead of heading back to the land? There’s so much more opportunity for connection and communication and interaction with each other and the other facets of society in cities — and much more in the way of economic opportunity to work with.
More than social housing: a leftist urbanism
Obviously plenty of other socialist governments built housing in cities — but typically in the deeply anti-urban form of isolated repetitive towers or apartment blocks. In Vienna the socialist project didn’t just happen to take place in the city, it was about re-imagining the city as a platform for equitable living.
Passive Passion is a good 20 minute long film introduction to the German Passivhaus energy efficiency standard, which reduces building energy use by 80-95% (depending on what existing code you compare it to). It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a few examples from the tens of thousands of Passivhaus certified buildings in Europe, including single family homes, row houses, apartment buildings, public low income housing, and office buildings. They talk about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation. The film also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize the cost effective implementation of these methods. It’s clearly possible. The examples are out there today. We just have to decide to do it! If we’re going to get to carbon zero, someday our buildings will all have to function something like this.
Passive Passion is a great 20 minute long documentary about the German Passive House energy efficiency standard. It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a bunch of examples of implementations in Europe, from single family homes to row houses, apartment buildings, public housing, office buildings, etc. Talks about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation. Also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize these methods, and do it cost effectively. Clearly it’s possible, we just have to decide to do it!
The Empowerhouse is an affordable, net-zero Passivhaus design, that came out of the Solar Decathlon competition. In collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, the team as built a duplex in the Washington DC area that is site net-zero, despite having the smallest solar array of any of the homes entered in the competition. It was able to do this because it took a Passivhaus approach, aggressively minimizing all loads first, sealing the building nearly airtight, and super-insulating it. They also integrated a rooftop garden and terrace. By sharing the heat management equipment between the two relatively small units, they were able to reduce costs substantially. All this means the low income residents will spend much, much less on energy over the lifetime of the building. We need more affordable housing that looks like this.
Design Explorations of the Lower Colorado River, a landscape architecture course taught by a friend of mine at Cal Poly, in which the Colorado River is taken to be the primary client, and human needs are assumed to be real, but secondary. All we have left is gardening. We might as well do a good job of it!
Our condo HOA had a meeting last fall, and somebody brought up selling the flat plate collectors on the roof that are part of our defunct solar thermal hot water system. The 750 gallon cylindrical storage tank rusted out in 2003 after 20 years of service. The outbuilding that houses it was basically built over the tank, so swapping it out for a new one would have meant either chopping the thing up in place with a cutting torch and building a new one on site, or removing the roof, which nobody was keen on. Some plumbing got re-routed and the tank sits there still, derelict. It was also mentioned that the main boiler for our hydronic district heating might be nearing the end of its days. I volunteered to look into whether it would make economic sense to repair the solar thermal system, and what the options were for the boiler.
Given that flat plate solar thermal collectors generate an average of about 1kBTU worth of heat per day per square foot (according to the US EIA), and given that we have about 250 square feet of collecting area (nine 28 square foot panels), the current system ought to collect something like 250kBTU/day. Our current boiler consumes 520kBTU/hr worth of gas, meaning that the solar thermal system could at best displace a half hour’s worth of operation each day. Gas costs about $8/million BTUs, so the boiler costs about $4/hr to run. If we assume optimistically that system losses are negligible, and that the boiler runs at least half an hour a day 250 days a year (it was only hooked up to the baseboard heating, not the domestic hot water) then the solar thermal system is capable of displacing something like $500 worth of gas each year. This is a best case scenario though, since the hydronic system needs water that’s hotter than the flat plate collectors can make it (so the boiler will have to do some work to boost the temperature) and because the system losses are almost certainly non-negligible.
Still, $500/year might be a significant savings. To know whether it’s really worthwhile, we need to know how much it will cost up front to get this savings, and how long we ought to expect to be able to collect it (i.e. what’s the system’s expected lifetime). I got wildly varying estimates of the cost to get the system up and running again. At the low end it was $5000, to leave the rusty tank where it is and put a collapsible storage bladder in the crawlspace. At the high end it was $20,000 to remove the old tank and build a new spray-foam insulated stainless steel one in its place. I used this calculator to sanity check my energy numbers above (which don’t seem crazy), as well as the estimates. It suggests that all in, the total system cost including installation would be something like $28,000. I suspect that a plastic bladder in the crawlspace wouldn’t be as efficient or as durable as the new stainless tank. For the sake of argument, let’s say the cheap option will only last 5 years, and the expensive one will last 30 years. The original tank lasted about 20 years. Here’s what it looks like today:
A look at the difficulties of getting good HVAC design in high performance homes. Most HVAC professionals are not familiar with the design requirements of very energy efficient homes with tight envelopes. Most rules of thumb and the very basic modeling that is done in support of sizing the systems implicitly assume a “code” home… which is the least efficient house you can build without getting sued. Oversized systems cause different problems than undersized ones, but they’re still significant problems. As high performance homes become more common, more people are running into these issues. Better contractor, builder, and homeowner education is needed.