What’s Next in High Performance Building?

After receiving an invitation from an old professor at the University of Colorado to attend a webinar entitled What’s Next in High Performance Building, (link goes to Governor’s Energy Office, webinar will be available online in the weeks to come) well, my interest was piqued. Someone please tell me, what is next?.

And don’t say flying cars, I already fell for that one.

With an undergraduate degree in architecture and twelve years of construction experience, I consider myself more in tune with sustainability and green building than probably most other folks. However, the recent “dip” in the economy has pushed “green” aside in favor of “value” for most of our clients. In fact, its been three years since my design/build business has done a true green build. While my clients’ values may have temporarily shifted, I’m very much interested in maintaining a business that is green at its core, which means keeping current with sustainable trends in architecture.

So it was somewhat disappointing to hear that most of the concepts outlined in the Architectural Trends portion of the webinar are the same concepts that Fred Andreas had been teaching undergrads in his Solar and Sustainable Design course some fifteen years ago, though clearly the technology continues to evolve. High performance glazing, natural day-lighting, passive solar, photovoltaics, ground source heat pumps, greywater systems and eco-machines, to name a few. These have all been in the hopper for quite some time now, and they seem to have only become more complicated and reliant on technology. Somehow we need to find a balance between simple, functional designs and the abundance of technology available to us.

For instance, the most green, energy efficient, cost effective way to cool our house during the summer is really quite simple: we open the windows at night, and then close them through the heat of the day. In this climate, in our old brick house, it works great. Our neighbors run their central air twenty-four seven during the summer, maybe their windows are painted shut or maybe they aren’t around to open and shut them. In this case the problem is that the most efficient way to cool a house relies on human initiative, and we all know how reliable that is. So I think where we are really making interesting progress is with materials and technologies that require little or no human input to respond to changing conditions.

Case and point, in the arena of high performance glazing (otherwise known as really expensive windows or “smart windows” for short) there are now commercially available products such as electrochromatic glazing

and thermochromatic glazing that control solar gains while optimizing natural light. Phase change glazing can physically store energy throughout the day to be released at night. All of these products can act independently of humans, enabling a building to constantly respond to its environment. There are also new technologies being employed to develop predictive intelligence for buildings, using algorithms of human behavior coupled with weather forecasting to predict and respond to future needs, thus maximizing a building’s energy efficiency.

With out a doubt the most interesting part of the webinar was featured speaker Fred Andreas’ talk about the concept of “a living wall.” The National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers Research Initiative recently awarded a grant to a team of C.U. faculty (Fred being one of them) to study living wall materials, which is essentially biomimicry of the human body’s thermal regulation systems. If the Living Wall can provide the 80-95% energy reduction predicted, it will go a long way towards meeting the lofty goal of net zero energy buildings by 2030.

As I understand it, the living wall is like a “thermal diaper”, absorbing and wicking heat either into or away from the contents of a building as needed. An interstitial wall system exchanges heat and light through a capillary matrix of hydrogels and phase change materials. Prototypes are still a couple of years out, so it will be even longer before we know if Living Walls can become a commercially viable part of the sustainability puzzle.

Until then, I’m left to contend with our 1909 single-pane double-hung windows. Which reminds me, I better go close them!

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