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Energy Efficient Buildings: Technology Only Part of the Solution

Matt Fajkus

September 10, 2012

Most experts agree we’re in an energy crisis. Since 40% of energy used in the United States is consumed by buildings, pressure has increased to design and build more energy-efficient structures and respective systems to reduce demand. As humans, our natural inclination is to look for a technological solution. That’s the approach taken with the Passive House Standard, which started in Germany and is intended to create buildings which are passively energy-efficient, typically with highly-insulated, airtight construction, and the incorporation of renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic panels.

While these improvements in building performance are a critical component in helping to solve the energy problem, I have concerns about views that technology alone will be our savior. Human behavior, or performance, is at least as important as building performance with respect to increasing efficiency and thus demand. Before our nation’s dependence on mechanical heating and cooling, we were necessarily active in “tuning” buildings as one would do with an instrument to optimize their performance in their respective climate. Calibration was achieved by methods including opening of windows for cross-ventilation and manipulating shutters and blinds to modulate light throughout the day, giving building occupants a fundamental understanding of building physics, primarily through trial and error.

Americans were previously more in tune with their surrounding climate and with nature in general. More broadly, humans evolved around the patterns of natural light, upon which our circadian rhythms were naturally established. Now that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors in climate-controlled environments, levels of stress and depression are likely to continually rise. Instead of moving toward the design of exclusively more introverted interior environments, architects need to carefully take cues from vernacular strategies such as overhangs, cross-ventilation strategies and operable screen devices. Furthermore, building occupants need to be better informed on the operation and calibration of the buildings they live in.

The Smart Building Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture aims to help with that, as students living in Sutton Hall are able to monitor their energy consumption in real time on a designated website, to better understand the energy impact of their behavior. Furthermore, since typical energy units such as Kilowatt Hours are not understood by most, the site converts the units to the equivalent calories or frappuccinos the building consumes per hour. The goal is based on the premise that an increased understanding of the relationship between human behavior and building behavior will affect a positive change to improve energy efficiency, as I feel that the passive house trajectory alone is not the silver bullet strategy it is hoped to be.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make buildings more energy efficient. We need both strategies. As director of the Facade Thermal Lab at the School of Architecture, part of my research is specifically targeted at designing energy-efficient building facade systems, but energy conservation through awareness needs to meet technological strides halfway.

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Matt Fajkus is an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and Director of the University’s Facade Thermal Lab. Fajkus previously worked for the world-renowned, Pritzker Prize-winning firm Foster and Partners in London, on the design of numerous large scale international projects including a new Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., a residential skyscraper in northeast London, and a series of high-speed rail stations in Saudi Arabia, all of which utilize advanced technology in conjunction with intuitive design logic to optimize light transmission and spatial performance. He holds a Master of Architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Fajkus is a licensed architect, a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional, and is the principal architect of Matt Fajkus Architecture, LLC. 


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