Cars and Cooktops, and the Net-Zero House – The Great Electrification.
This essay stems from a new year’s resolution of sorts – to tackle ever bigger subjects. While I love finding the humor and nuance in the obscure, and finding the profound in the obvious, I often get asked important questions that deserve considered response.
Electric cars. I grew up in the Michigan rust belt of the 70’s and 80’s, and it seemed that all Motor City across the state could muster was muscle, and not with much refinement. Without broadcasting it to my friends, and certainly not to their Michigan-proud parents, I pined for the European offerings, and even in a pinch, what Japan was exporting. It’s no wonder my first car was a barely running 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, nor that my next car as a collegiate was a 1975 Saab with over 120,000 miles when purchased with the earnings from a hard summer’s labor. As an adult, I have become an evangelical advocate of summer jobs for high school and college students. The “Wagon-Duck,” as we affectionately called my Saab’s unusually designed hatchback, was a perfect fit, despite its many design and mechanical quirks, for a preppy, elitist future architect. Even with three mechanics seemingly on call in Charlottesville, Virginia, the car broke down frequently and absurdly inconveniently, and finally, sadly, my parent-sponsors insisted she be traded in for an example of dependable American sheet metal. In 1997, I re-established my relationship with the now defunct Saab Motor Company. I brought home my first-ever new car, a black 9-3 Convertible to a Manhattan garage with a monthly rent nearly as dear as my apartment. It was the first of four black Saab convertibles I leased in secession, the last being the 2007 Aero convertible that we now own and is wintering in our garage – and appreciating as the years tick by. She won’t be sold, though; and it is only nine more years until the kids can gleefully hang antique-car plates on her. I realize in writing this, that the first one I leased in 1997 would already be eligible, and soon enough, our 2012 Subaru and 2013 Jeep Wrangler will qualify, as well.
Architects form deep connections with their cars, and I am no exception. The cars I’ve known and loved all have been gasoline-powered, and life has been good, at least until Elon and Tesla came along, upending the world with every new offering. On a pleasant Saturday in March of 2022, without much on the agenda, I walked the kids west from Lincoln Center to the Polestar showroom, which Polestar calls a “space.” I hadn’t told them of the spreadsheet I had created comparing range, price, and zero-to-sixty times of several available electric vehicles. Quietly, my wife Darcy and I had spent months weighing the pros and cons of electric vehicles and finally decided the time was right to consider signing on. We were aware the cars we favored were more expensive than gas alternatives, and that we wouldn’t likely enjoy a road trip in an EV other than a Tesla with their dominant supercharging network, and that repairs or service, if necessary, would be expensive and inconvenient. We also failed to contemplate what would happen in the case of an accident (foreshadowing). An hour after our visit to the “space” and a very quick test drive, the four of us went out to lunch and hotly debated colors and option packages. Well fed, and in surprising agreement, we wandered back to the “space” and were guided through placing a deposit online. Buying (or leasing) an EV from one of the electric-only manufacturers is a new and discomfiting experience for us not so young people who thrive on relationships. There is no ‘manager’ with whom to cajole and negotiate, there is no car to drive off the floor, there are no customers loitering in the showroom looking to kibbitz and compare notes while waiting for the service department to complete their oil change.
Six frustrating months after the originally promised lead time of six weeks, we finally took delivery of our first electric vehicle. The handoff occurred not at the “space,” but in Chelsea at Manhattan Motor Cars. Surrounded by a fleet of exotic six figure performance cars, both electric and internal combustion, the delivery process took a little more than an hour and was led by an upbeat twenty-something techie and an even younger trainee. Finally checked out on this unfamiliar machine, I drove away, an iPad-like tablet staring at me as I did my best to keep my eyes on the road. We aren’t particularly early adopters when it comes to EV’s, some ten percent of all new cars sold in 2022 were electric, and yet, as we became familiar with the car, we experienced the opposite of buyer’s remorse. Our thoughts were akin to “what took us so long.” The car is superior in so many ways to any car we’ve owned. It is quieter. It is faster. Its handling is truer. And the adaptive driving (not yet autonomous) and safety features impress and will likely compel even more as we adapt to the technology; and as over-the-air updates float down from the cloud to magically update the software at the heart of the vehicle. Best of all, the car’s first scheduled maintenance comes at 30,000 miles or three years, and we no longer need to stop for gas when driving back and forth between Connecticut and New York. Together, these affirmative attributes overcame our knowledge that electricity is produced neither cleanly nor efficiently, and that plans are murky for the recycling of batteries. We even overcame the fact that our Swedish performance car was manufactured in China. But, following the old expression, a better mousetrap is just that, a better mousetrap.
When the public agrees that electric vehicles are better than gas alternatives, market forces will accelerate the transition, not by regulation and mandate, but by demand. Brought about by the need to reverse climate change, EV’s represent the future, both for the planet, and equally beneficially, for drivers and passengers. Someday in the not-too-distant future, renewable energy will prevail, improved capacity batteries will be more easily recyclable, and our self-driving cars will pilot themselves to roadside charging sites that are as ubiquitous as the gas stations of the twentieth century. I can’t help but be reminded of the famous introductory lines of Star Wars: “This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it.”
Note: As for the before-mentioned accident, our love affair with the car only lasted for a total of 1432 miles before striking a deer (an eight-pointer by estimation) at fifty miles per hour. Luckily no one was injured, except the deer, but the car sustained significant damage. Under normal circumstances, the car would have been put on a flat bed and towed to a certified autobody shop and repaired. In this case, Polestar had not yet certified any repair shops, nor could the company provide a parts list, cost, or lead time for the supply of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) parts, and our insurer had to total her out. Unlike the long wait for the first car, the replacement car we are now driving was in stock and ready for delivery.
Gas Cooktops. The appliance world hits a little closer to home, and not just because I love to cook, or that among my most treasured possessions are my mother’s cast iron pans which have been perfectly seasoned by nearly a century of blue flames. As the specifier of appliances for clients’ homes, we are constantly learning which appliances are loved and most desired. Built-in steam ovens, high-btu wok burners and sous vide vacuum drawers are the current rage, and luxury appliance manufacturers are racing to dominate each respective category. We also hear the myriad complaints when appliances reliably underperform or fail. By example, I learned last year that the very best clear-ice maker has a life expectancy of only seven years. We also take note of once-popular products that have gone out of fashion – trash compactors, for instance. Lately, we’ve been hearing drumbeats of potential regulations targeting the nearly universal gas stove. Maybe the gas stove is the next incandescent lightbulb. I, however, struggle to imagine reconsidering my preference for gas stovetops. From the clicking of the igniter to the visual management and constant adjustment of the blue flame, cooking with gas is a sensual experience. And yet, we are now hearing from thinktanks and our government suggestions that gas stoves present a health risk, especially in poorly ventilated kitchens. The headlines are curious, given the modest health risks of gas stoves – which are not assault rifles or cigarettes after all – could be addressed by encouraging better ventilation, or by an education campaign about ventilation and gas stoves – a little fine print, if you will. The health risks, therefore, are likely the proverbial tail wagging a Saint Bernard, adding (fossil) fuel to an already blazing fire.
New York City is seeking to address climate change in 2023 by prohibiting gas service to new buildings under seven stories; and in 2027, this regulation will expand to include all new buildings. For the past decade, failed gas inspections, whether routine, or a result of 311 complaints (“I smell gas”), or necessitated by projects filed with the Department of Buildings, restoring gas service has been difficult to the point of impossible. Residents commonly recount that they and their neighbors had to cook on hot plates for a year or more while Con Ed inspected and oversaw the replacement of leaking gas lines. The City and the Department of Buildings clearly have gas service in their gun sights, even before adding in the notion of health risks. While both city and national governments are keen to facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to ‘clean electricity,’ the transition will not come easily, and won’t be contested solely by a cook’s nostalgic preference for the blue flame. The changeover of cooking, not to mention heating plants and clothes drying, from gas to electricity is either a Herculean or Sisyphean task, depending on your level of mythological cynicism.
Using New York City as an example, there are roughly 77,000 residential buildings with four or more apartments throughout the boroughs of New York City. Add in the one, two, and three-unit townhouses, there are more than one million existing residential units, and for the some 400,000 (forty percent) that have gas stoves, converting to electric will be difficult, expensive, and take decades, or longer. In larger buildings, finding space in the mechanical areas of the basement for additional larger electrical meter pans presents logistical challenges, and once power is brought to the building and space is made available, running conduits vertically, story after story, to individual units is even more daunting. Several years ago, we were renovating an apartment on the twentieth floor of one of the landmark Emory Roth towers along Central Park West that required an electric upgrade to power the home’s central air system and electric wall ovens. We were allocated space in the cellar meter closet and from there, ran along hallway ceilings for approximately one-hundred-fifty feet to a fire stair, and then, up we went, and up, and up, and up; some 250 feet up. The electricians followed a route taken by others, utilizing the limited space between the handrails of the switchback fire stair, filling the vertical void effectively solid. As we discussed with the building’s chief engineer, we were lucky to find the route, and whether the next wealthy homeowner in need of an electrical service upgrade will be able to find a similar route, is to be seen, unless of course, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission greenlights the running of conduits on the exterior of one of the most notable buildings in Manhattan. I’m not holding my breath.
Other problems with power persist in our largest city. Con Edison simply cannot deliver enough power to the borough of Manhattan on the summer’s high demand days – known as heat index days. It is common knowledge that Con Edison dials back the power delivery to Manhattan residents on heat index days to avoid brownouts and blackouts, the blackout of 2003 being the most extreme example in my memory. For residents in certain neighborhoods, power can be decreased for most of a summer. It is even worse for a resident who lives on a high floor and suffers additional voltage-drop as the electrical conduits climb to the sky. It can take quite a while to preheat a large bespoke electric oven to cook a child’s chicken nuggets. For a recent penthouse project, sixteen floors high, we had to have Wolf Range replace the dual-fuel range (electric oven, gas burners) with an all-gas model due to this problem – ironically, the exact reverse of today’s desired conversion of gas to electric. Come visit me in the office, and you will see a stunning Iwan Baan photograph of a dark lower Manhattan that graced the cover of New York Magazine just after 2012’s Super Storm Sandy. The sobering image documents what happens when a significant portion of the grid supplying a city of eight million souls fails.
In New York City at least, these challenges and more will require solution before market forces combine with safety and climate concerns to make gas stoves a thing of the past, just as gas lighting and gas ovens are no longer the standard of the day. The preference for electric ovens did not come about due to the very real early twentieth century health risk (death) of sticking one’s head in an oven. That vexing problem was solved in the 1960’s by changing the chemical make-up of gas delivery. Electric lighting was originally thought to be less safe than the gas lighting it was replacing; it wasn’t. The change to electric lighting and ovens is purely functional, which is obvious with lighting, but less so for ovens. Today’s electric oven holds temperature more precisely, is readily programmable, and most importantly to the homeowner, is self-cleaning. Today’s space-efficient digitally programmable (smart) electric air-fryers preheat almost immediately, fry without oil, and use less energy than traditional larger ovens; and can be purchased at Amazon and plugged into standard outlets. Much of our daily cooking is now done in one.
As for the offending, blue-flamed cooktop which has grabbed recent headlines, a straight-up comparison to an electric induction unit may help. With induction, pasta water boils faster, burners simmer at a lower and more precise temperature, and when the saucepan is not in contact with the cooktop surface, the surface is cool to the touch, effectively ‘child safe,’ even though there is no such thing. And just like the electric oven, an induction cooktop made of flat glass is much easier to clean. For high-heat wok cooking, the top-of-the-line induction burner provides 30,000 BTU’s, compared to the equivalent best-in-class gas burner at 22,000 BTU’s; and the induction wok’s pointed bottom magically hovers a few millimeters above the glass surface. Give it time, and even the most nostalgic and egotistical chef will demand to make the switch to induction. The only question remains is whether I will be as excited to cook in my mother’s pans. They are ferrous, so they work with induction, but somehow, I fear the experiential disconnect between technologies separated by a century may be too much for me.
The Net-Zero House. Moving on from cars and cooktops, we come to the net-zero house, a subject about which an architect has greater expertise. If you are a rancher with exceptional acreage, and are a wildcatter to boot, we can probably design for you a net-zero house that hums along on site-harvested fossil fuels. For everyone else, the dream of being off the grid and consuming no more energy than is produced on premises requires an electric-only energy solution, both in production and consumption. Today’s technology on both fronts makes the ideal of a net-zero house realizable, no longer just the futurist imaginings presented at a World’s Fair or at GreenBuild, the US Green Building Council’s annual convention. Renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal) are all available at the residential scale, and the electric systems (heating, air conditioning, lighting, cooking, cleaning) become more efficient with each passing year. While each of our new home designs is energy efficient, satisfying or surpassing codes and qualifying for energy management certification (LEED, etc.), we have yet to design a fully net-zero home. We have installed solar and geothermal systems, and we have even designed all-electric homes, although not yet net-zero; but it is coming.
Most homeowners carefully consider the cost-benefit assessments comparing the up-front expenses to the savings in operating expense. While variable, the time it takes to recoup the up-front capital investment through operating savings, becoming economically net-zero, has historically been intolerably long, and is made all the greater by the significant incremental cost of designing and installing aesthetically pleasing systems. Forgive me the political statement, but fossil fuels, even with the rise in costs at the pump, are still too cheap. Even more than the prolonged return on investment of renewables, net-zero houses are often unattractive, covered in flat plate solar collectors, and maybe, with a wind turbine out back somewhere. Most people seem not to want to live in an industrial designer’s vision of a machine for living. But as we get better at it, we specify aesthetically non-compromising solutions such as building integrated solar (thin film adhesive collectors installed between the standing seams of a metal roof), geothermal that is buried under ground, and solar thermal (pex tubing run below dark roofs that are heated by the sun and which pre-heat domestic hot water and radiant heat storage tanks). When we finally resolve the cost-benefit and aesthetic considerations, net-zero homes will be less anomalous and in demand. In the meantime, we’ll continue in our grid-tied ways – just don’t ask us to let you cook with gas, unless you really want to.
With every passing day, the transition from fossil fuels to renewably-generated electricity becomes more certain, and while the impetus may have been confrontation of climate change, the accelerant is demand. A February 14, 2023 article in the New York Post titled: See Blade’s futuristic new ‘helicopters that will bring NYC’s elite to the Hamptons – quietly; tells the story of Blade Air Mobility’s test of its new eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft. Just as with electric cars, this type of electric vertical aircraft (EVA) will be zero-emissions. More significantly in this case, EVAs will reduce, or remove altogether, the intolerable air pollution of helicopters, which will be a tremendous relief to those who live and work in Manhattan and the Hamptons, some of the most expensive zip codes in the country. I imagine it will be some time before I hitch a ride on an EVA , but we should all be thrilled that the billionaires have created a market for companies and their engineers to solve their rare-air problems. Those of us who are less fortunate, and more than a little jealous, hate rotor noise as much as they do, and per capita, we will be even greater beneficiaries of its disappearance. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was the exceedingly affluent who were first to install electric lighting in their homes, and the first to hang flat screen (plasma) TVs on their walls at the end of the twentieth. Their behavior in the electric arena surely gives new meaning to the expression ‘trickle down.’
Note: In case you think I get all my news from the New York Post, an article in the Wall Street Journal titled: Tesla to Open Some Superchargers to Other Vehicles, White House Says; published on the very same day, caught my eye. We must also give thanks and credit, therefore, to our government, as Elon Musk and Tesla are heavily incentivized by the billions of funding available for highway charging stations by the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Bill passed in November 2021. As a Polestar driver, I like this type of public-private partnership.
DF, February 15, 2023