ThinkProgress Green Interview: Leading The Way In Sustainable Building

Dr. Ali Malkawi

A central component of solving the climate crisis is our built environment — the homes in which we live, the buildings in which we work. Forty percent of energy consumption in the United States is related to buildings, especially heating and cooling. On Thursday and Friday, the T.C. Chan Center is hosting the United Nations Environmental Programme – Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative (UNEP-SBCI) Symposia at the University of Pennsylvania.

This conference brings together the different players linked to the built environment from around the world, with the goal of finding solutions that can feed to the international meeting in Rio de Janeiro on climate change and global sustainability next year, twenty years after the seminal conference that set up the international framework for fighting global warming pollution in 1992.

The T.C. Chan Center, founded by Dr. Ali Malkawi, researches and develops technology to “create healthier, productive, energy efficient strategies that will lead to high performance buildings and sustainable environments.” In an interview with ThinkProgress Green, Dr. Malkawi explained why this sustainable building conference is so important, and what are the exciting developments in the world of green architecture.

“The main problem that we have is measuring the performance of buildings,” Malkawi said. “Most of our research is built toward finding solutions that can predict energy consumption of buildings.”

At first glance, the problem of figuring out the energy consumption for buildings doesn’t seem that hard, at least in developed countries like the United States. We have metered electricity and heating use, and clear metrics of energy production. However, when it comes to actually making buildings more sustainable, this aggregate information is insufficent. To design or retrofit an energy-efficient building, Malkawi said, one needs to look at lighting, heating, and cooling systems separately, potentially floor by floor. Most buildings are not submetered. Without sufficiently granular information, it becomes impossible to guarantee clear results:

The rule of thumb is if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.

The rewards of data-driving green building design are huge. According to Malkawi, you can save 50 to 60 percent of energy consumption during the design phase. A good example is the Monterrey International Airport, where a new terminal was designed with the idea to lower energy consumption even before systems were put in. Major improvements can also come from ensuring efficient operation of existing systems, the equivalent of making sure that a car’s tires are properly inflated and its sensors calibrated. At the T.C. Chan Center’s home, the University of Pennsylvania, they’ve worked with facilities managers to find problems that exist in systems and optimize systems behavior, using computational models that allowed them to pinpoint individual problem buildings. They’ve achieved 15 to 25 percent reduction in energy use just by getting the best use from existing systems.

The challenge of sustainable buildings is greater than just one of designing good structures. “There’s work that’s underway that looks at the behavior of urban environments and the interaction with individual buildings,” Malkawi said. If buildings are placed away from urban infrastructures, that will require more energy consumption by its users, including the costs of increased transportation. A good rating system for green buildings takes into account the “neighboodscape,” as Malkawi described it.

The UN symposium deals with the technology, policy, and financial issues of sustainable building. There needs to be meaningful, performance-based policy to encourage green buildings, as well as a way to finance these measures. “There’s a need for both top-down and bottom-up policy,” Malkawi said. Without mandatory policies that set objective standards and technology to measure results, the financial sector won’t be able to ensure that efforts to decrease energy consumption have guaranteed value. Policies that set clear thresholds, Malkawi believes, “would drive the financial sectors and technologies.”

Unfortunately, the United States is lagging behind, Malkawi said, although our strong university system is keeping us in the game:

At the moment, research and development is in good shape. We’re much further than other countries because we still have the best universities in the world — but not in deployment and practice, which is best in best in northern Europe and Japan. It’s being hindered here by lack of enforced standards that would require developers to erect energy efficient buildings. Pretty soon, if you don’t put these issues up front, even the areas of research are going to be lagging behind.

Rebuilding our living and working spaces to be sustainable is both one of the world’s greatest challenges but also an incredible opportunity. The housing crisis, jobs crisis, and climate crisis are linked by our built environment. Whichever nation leads the way will reap the greatest rewards.

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