Buildings that communicate and change shape to keep their occupants comfortable and safe.
By Jonathan Fahey, Forbes
In England there is a building made with insulation that can be inflated or deflated to adjust to outside temperatures. In Germany there is a house designed to be easily disassembled and recycled. The New York Times Co. building is draped in shades that automatically adjust to the movement of the sun. In Milwaukee a museum changes its very shape to shade itself.
The point of a building is to keep its inhabitants comfortable: Humans want to be warm (but not too warm) and dry. The problem comes in providing heating or cooling, and replacing the light lost when the sun is shut out. The solutions are becoming ever more creative.
“Heat and light are the things people are most concerned about, and they are the things that take energy,” says Brendon Levitt, an architect with the San Francisco Bay Area firm Loisos + Ubbelohde, which specializes in so-called high-performance buildings. He also teaches construction technology at California College of the Arts.
To keep people comfortable and happy in a way that limits the amount of energy needed, architects and engineers are coming up with new materials, technology and approaches to building design, construction and management.
Levitt points to buildings that have been constructed over the last several years that automatically shade themselves with window devices or by changing shape; ones that filter wastewater through plants so it can be reused; and ones that document and broadcast information about how they are behaving.
Buildings are being powered differently, too, of course, by things like solar panels and fuel cells. Companies like AeroVironment ( AVAV – news – people ) are developing small-scale wind turbines for buildings, and companies like United Technologies ( UTX – news – people ) are finding ever more clever ways to capture and reuse the heat otherwise wasted by a building’s heating and cooling system.
Sensor systems designed by companies like Johnson Controls ( JCI – news – people ) and Honeywell ( HON – news – people ) are being added all over buildings to track occupancy, carbon dioxide levels and lighting levels and adjust the environment accordingly. Data on energy and water management are being gathered and broadcast by systems like those created by Lucid Design Group in ways that allows owners to track and compare information.
According to Scot Horst of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit membership group that devised the environmental and energy design standards known as LEED, the movement to make buildings more efficient was initially spearheaded by architects. Now, though, he says it is being driven by the architects’ clients.
“We’ve been building bad buildings for so long that people realize they don’t want to buy them or lease them because they cost too much to manage,” he says.
There is also what he calls a healthy competition among companies to become and appear more green. PNC Financial Services ( PNC – news – people ) built one of the first LEED-certified buildings, in 2000, and now claims to have more new certified green buildings than any other company. Bank of America ( BAC – news – people ) completed a skyscraper in Manhattan last year that was the first to attain the highest LEED certification, platinum. Wells Fargo ( WFC – news – people ) has announced a plan to certify its branches.
One big issue, however, remains. A building can be designed perfectly, but it can still waste a lot of energy if the occupants leave the air conditioning running with the windows open or don’t shut the lights off. Horst estimates the responsibility for the performance of a building is split three ways: one-third is determined by the design, one-third by how it is managed and one-third by how people inside behave.
Levitt, the architect with Loisos + Ubbelohde, says there is plenty of technology already available for designers to use, but there are still a few things he’d like to see in the future. He has hopes for materials that could be used for insulation or even in windows that can change to let more or less heat or light through.
He’d like thermostats that can better evaluate human comfort, and perhaps expand the tiny range of temperature and humidity that buildings are designed to operate in. He’d also like to find efficient ways to customize spaces within buildings so a person wearing short sleeves isn’t shivering from an overzealous air conditioner while the guy in the suit next door is sweating. (See “Your Future Cubicle.”)