06/09/16 : Reed Brown

How do we design buildings of the future?

The building sector consumes a significant amount of energy across the world – in the U.S. this equals about 40 percent of energy used and 70 percent of total electricity used. When we think of the existing 114 million homes and 80 million square feet of commercial building space, there is certainly a lot of potential for energy savings. However, weather patterns are changing as a result of climate change and buildings will need to be designed and constructed to not only be energy-efficient, but also resilient in the face of a new set of climactic conditions. There are a range of methods that can be used to address these issues, like improving specific components within the buildings themselves, coordinating components that make up building systems and educating the people that live and work in these buildings. If any of these components are ignored, a significant amount of savings will be left unrealized.

What follows is a write-up on the session "Buildings of the Future: How do we design and construct energy-efficient, resilient and climate adaptive buildings?" at EE Global 2016.

Ersilia Serafini, president of the Summerhill Group, focused her remarks on the impacts of humans and the interaction between humans and buildings. She stressed that “people are unpredictable,” and explained that even the best theoretical models of potential energy savings can fall well short of actual savings because people do not behave as engineers expect them to behave. As such, she explained, there is the potential for achieving significant additional energy savings simply by understanding and educating the people that work or live within the building. In one example, Serafini described a project that aimed to reduce energy consumption without any capital investment: simply by optimizing the lighting schedules for the tenants within the building, the building was able to save 1.5 million kWh, worth $168,000, per year.

Mark MacCracken, CEO of CALMAC Manufacturing, spoke about the importance of energy storage and the ways in which zero net energy buildings impact the grid. He explained that fossil fuels are such a valued commodity because they are not simply a form of energy, but also a form of stored energy. In contrast, renewable energy cannot be stored effectively – presenting a challenge. As zero net energy buildings become more prevalent, energy storage will be become even more vital. MacCracken went on to explain that the relationship between zero net energy buildings and utilities is complicated (for reasons beyond the scope of this panel summary blog post) and energy storage will help make these buildings more viable. As MacCracken put it, “A lot of excitement has been generated by Tesla’s Battery Wall, for good reason, but thermal storage is already a 10th of the price of batteries with a lifetime 5-10 times longer than the average battery.”

Sheila Hayter, officer at ASHRAE, spoke about resilience and the role of building codes. The buildings of the future will be zero net energy buildings, meaning they will create an equal amount of – or more – energy than they consume. These buildings, she explained, will need to incorporate highly-efficient designs and materials which will ensure that they can continue to operate even if faced with a power outage or extreme weather event. One way to encourage these efficient design principles is through effective building codes and standards. Hayter described two options: the International Code Council’s (ICC) International Green Construction Code and the ASHRAE 189.1 standard. Both of these options have their respective strengths, but Hayter outlined the need for a single set of principles to help improve consistency across buildings. ASHRAE is working on developing such a standard, which will be available in 2018. There are many factors that must be correctly aligned to create a sustainable building – and building energy codes and standards are certainly crucial factors, Hayter explained.

Michael Mazor, fellow and scientist at The Dow Chemical Company, spoke about the need to address energy consumption in the built environment, specifically the existing building stock. There are approximately 114 million existing homes and 80 billion square feet of commercial space in the United States, which means there is a significant opportunity to reduce energy consumption. However, tapping into this potential is difficult. Technology exists to address the issue, but without clear policy directives to spur momentum, it will be hard to overcome the situational inertia. Mazor described the difficulties of updating building codes to address future environmental concerns, which are currently difficult to predict.

Kevin Bollom, vice president of building services at Trane, described the efforts of businesses to address their carbon footprints. He explained that, according to a recent data set ranking the importance of a range of factors, 90 percent of business owners have made a commitment to reduce their impact on the climate and 70 percent of business owners currently utilize energy efficiency tactics to reduce energy consumption in their buildings and supply chain. This data, he pointed out, shows that companies have realized that energy efficiency is by far the cheapest and easiest way to reduce their energy consumption. In regards to buildings, energy efficiency is best incorporated as an element of building design, he continued. There are many ways to optimize current buildings and the buildings of the future: the building needs to be approached as a system, it needs to be monitored and it needs to be improved continuously. And, he pointed out, improving energy efficiency in buildings does not have to be difficult, as simply monitoring energy consumption can lead to reduced consumption (up to 7 percent!).

The built environment is a vast source of untapped energy saving potential. All of the panelists highlighted ways that energy efficiency can be utilized to reduce energy consumption while also saving businesses and homeowners money and protecting the environment. Challenges remain, but a great deal of exciting progress has already been accomplished in the effort to make buildings more energy-efficient and resilient.

* The Energy Efficiency Global Forum 2016 was held on May 11-12, in Washington D.C. Click here to read a summary of all sessions.