Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Tiny House of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost Revisited

Being from a sprawling mid-western city, I had never seen anything quite like this before. It was as if I'd walked into a mini doll house. The ground floor had one tiny room. A steep, twisting staircase led up one floor to another tiny room and bathroom, and the staircase led up again to a bedroom. Metal pulls had been installed to help hoist oneself up to each level, as if aboard a submarine. "It's your basic trinity house,” the realtor said. Apparently, this was a uniquely Philadelphia invention.

The locals also call them Father, Son, and Holy Ghost houses.

Philadelphia of the mid-18th century was in an age of an economic boom. As noted on the website of the Independence Hall Association, "artisans and small manufacturers were needed to supply goods and services to a growing population. Those considered to be artisans included cabinetmakers, silversmiths, pewterers, glass blowers, and wagon builders. As the dwellings in center city were owned by prosperous merchants and land speculators, the artisan middle class congregated in enclaves to the north by the (Delaware) river. They prospered with the growth of the city."  Read More...


Home Energy: A Turning Point

Image via Wikipedia
The need to save energy is a notion everyone seems to agree is important these days. Whether you're short, tall, wealthy, poor, liberal, conservative, pink, green, or purple - the idea that you might be burning up dollars for no reason strikes a common nerve.

That's why it's comforting to know that professional guidance for the power to save has come to the Philadelphia region in the form of EnergyWorks, a comprehensive energy solutions program for home and commercial or industrial building owners. EnergyWorks experts help owners find ways to reduce their building’s energy use, and EnergyWorks’ low-interest loans help them pay for the upgrade.

At Energywise PA, a site sponsored by the new Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance, Deputy Philadelphia Mayor Alan Greenberger describes the program as follows:

"EnergyWorks pays to send auditors to a home or business to pinpoint specific changes that can save energy and money. [For example], say I have a big house in Mount Airy and, even though I'm an architect, I can actually think of 10 things to do, but I don't know which one is the most bang for the buck."

Many homeowners can get a $400 energy audit and only pay $100 for it. Likewise, low-interest loans are available for improvements. The $25 million program is available in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties.

Last month Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Campus Apartments CEO David Adelman announced the first full commercial application of EnergyWorks in the launching of an impressive $50 million hotel project in Philadelphia's University City community.

A press release by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation quotes the Mayor as saying "The city was able to pull levers in a difficult economic climate to obtain financing and make this project happen. By making a smart economic and environmental investment in Philadelphia, this project will bring new, quality jobs for our citizens and a brand-new, environmentally-friendly hotel for visitors. It’s a win for everyone involved.”
Auditor training.

The project will be the largest of its kind to utilize EnergyWorks trained contractors, an aspect that helps guarantee the investment will be fostered by an energy efficient, green-building methodology. That way, the return on the city's dollar is less likely to simply go up the chimney, literally.

In essence, we seem to be at a real turning point in the building trades and with our society in general regarding issues of energy conservation. Notions of saving the environment and saving money have begun to merge at a mainstream level; they are seen as one and the same.

For Energy Coordinating Agency executive director Liz Robinson, the two were never far apart. Her 26 year old organization sprouted from the need for a local community resource to help mitigate issues related to some of the less attuned policies of utility companies and their often unhindered rate hikes. 

Describing the ECA's beginnings in an interview with Designer in Exile, Ms. Robinson said "There was a necessity for community outreach and a comprehensive approach to solving energy solutions, and to get utility companies engaged in those solutions."

Some of those solutions are evidenced by the initiation of utility caps at the end of the 1990's, and the current transformation of the utility marketplace through deregulation and a more open market. But most notably it's seen in the growing commitment to energy conservation through various sectors of the local economy.

The evolving possibility of a genuine democratization of energy resources points to a great future for clean energy and the green-building trades. Even now, these sectors show signs of rapid growth in an otherwise stagnant economy. Ms. Robinson emphasized the importance of "helping to elevate the energy literacy" of both energy consumers and contractors during this period.

"In the past," she said, "utility companies made it easy - the public hasn't had to understand everything. Now with more choices at hand, there is a great need for education on the issues for consumers as well as training and other resources for contractors involved in programs such as EnergyWorks."

Throughout previous decades, the ECA has worked amidst the numerous stages of this transformation. Now the organization serves as a virtual lynch-pin for the Philadelphia region's vast array of exciting new energy conservation initiatives - a position they well deserve, and one from which we all can surely benefit.--D.A. DeMers.


A Heated Debate in the Marcellus Shale

Energy conservation and green-building methods are key to advancing our nation's clean energy future. Equally important is the need to examine issues of where our energy comes from or how it is extracted before it's delivered for use in our homes, schools, and office buildings. With regard to natural gas, an increasingly popular energy source, nothing is burning hotter than the issue of hydraulic fracturing or gas fracking, the drilling technology being employed in the expansive, resource rich region of the Marcellus Shale.

Recently I spoke about this topic with Pennsylvania State Senator Larry Farnese, fresh from his return from a fact finding mission at the Atlas Energy gas drilling site in Fayette County. The senator took part in the tour to get a better understanding of the industry and its issues, as talk continues about a natural gas extraction tax or fee. He hopes to include safety and environmental concerns as an important part of that discussion.

"I have extreme concern for the safety of the men and women involved in this work," he said. "The entire process of extracting gas from the shale is one that is done under extreme high pressure from fluids, and it's important we ensure safeguards are properly in place to protect workers."

Marcellus Shale drilling. GNU image.

The technology essentially involves pumping liquids into the ground to break up the bedrock and thus release gas trapped inside. Some environmentalists claim the method is inherently destructive to the ecosystem because chemicals utilized are said to be volatile and have been known to seep into the waterways. Similarly, questions over uncertain disposal methods continually plague the industry. Gas drillers are protected from full disclosure of their patented chemical recipes, or the amounts utilized, due to a loophole carved in the 2005 US Energy Act that circumvents the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972. The EPA is currently attempting to close the loophole in recent court battles.

Also contentious, at least on the local level, is the issue of a gas severance tax. Pennsylvania is currently the largest state without a drilling extraction fee to recoup possible environmental and oversight costs, or to help fund educational programs needed to ensure that its own citizens benefit from the well paying jobs promised by the boom - not simply professionals brought in from other locations. Reports from the Shale region claim that Texas license plates are present at many drilling sites. Likewise, international oil giant ChevronTexaco recently bought Atlas for an estimated $4.3 billion, making it the largest investment in the area to date. At the same time, Pennsylvania is facing budget shortfalls, especially in areas of job training and education needed to keep pace with these newer drilling methods.

But some have made a fierce argument that a gas severance tax would scare away investment, that it is essential to forgo such a fee in order to keep the state competitive in these fragile economic times. I proffered that position to the senator during the interview, but was quickly challenged.

"Absolute hogwash," he declared, displaying his sometimes outspoken, yet personable demeanor. "I talked to experts in top levels of the industry who say this is it. We have one of the nation's greatest energy resources, and the industry is coming here whether there is a fee or not." He emphasized that it is especially crucial to pass the bill now, because the greatest amount of the gas is predicted to be extracted from the region in the first 5-7 years. "We will simply lose out," he said. "It is just absurd."

Sen. Farnese. GNU image.
Despite the decision last October by the state's republican controlled senate to put off a vote on the tax, Senator Farnese feels there is still strong support on both sides of the aisle for such legislation. "To punt on this issue now is simply irresponsible," he said.

He may be right about support for the measure - desire for a tax appears to be rapidly cutting across political boundaries. A poll published this month in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review shows that more than half of registered republicans in the commonwealth now favor of some sort of severance fee. Likewise, more than two-thirds of all Pennsylvania voters say they are for it.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that gas fracking has become an increasingly visible issue on the national level. This awareness was advanced greatly by the recent award winning HBO documentary Gasland, by Pennsylvania native Josh Fox, which stunningly highlights many of the practice's potential environmental hazards.

In addition, a plethora of national and local clean water groups, such as the National Resource Defense Council, and Penn Future, and the diligent protest organization Protecting Our Waters, seem unrelenting. With a new administration in Harrisburg and budget deadline due by Spring, debate on the topic is certain to remain forefront. Stay Tuned.--D.A. DeMers.

"Home Energy: A Turning Point" and "A Heated Debate," were previously published on the associated site Home Science.
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  1. Curious. I heard that the federal tax deduction for homeowner improvements has been reduced this year. Do you think that will discourage people from making their homes more energy efficient?

    Sara J.

  2. Good question. Home energy efficiency improvement tax deductions in 2011 will be reduced from $1500 to $500, which is the level set in 2005. This includes 10% of the cost of insulating, installing efficient windows, replacing old furnaces and air conditioners and making other home energy efficiency improvements.

    The good news is that some less expensive items, such as Energy Star windows now qualify, and it's fortunate that the incentive program, in general, has been continued.

    Some skeptics predict a green-building stagnation as a consequence of this change. I don't. The tax deductions are only one reason people are retrofitting
    homes to be more energy efficient. The other is because utility rates have gone up, and people want to save money on bills. Llikewise, as awareness of energy issues grows, more are people seem interested in helping the environment and conserving resources. Those two forces alone are hard to turn back the momentum of the clean energy world.

    More specifics on this matter, and the products and materials effected can be found at

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