Construction Corner: Efficient buildings in a warming world

0 127 Technology

by Korky Koroluk

It started early in the 1970s, when the Organization of Petroleum Countries embargoed sales of oil to the United States and other allies of Israel as a way of protesting arms sales to Israel in what came to be known as the Yom Kippur War.
Construction Corner: Efficient buildings in a warming world
Photo: Korky Koroluk

That was in 1973-74, and was followed by what people came to refer to as the "second oil shock" in 1979, which resulted in increases to $80 a barrel.

To provide some perspective, the international price of oil presently hovers around $75 a barrel, and places like Alberta are feeling the budgetary crunch as producers are cutting production, resulting in lower royalties collected by the provincial government.

But in 1973, the price of crude from the Middle East was about $3 a barrel.

In less than a year that had jumped to about $12 a barrel.

The geopolitics of oil are of scant interest to the general public. Most know simply that the price at the gas pump has dropped lately and they like it.

But, the same geopolitics of oil has also resulted in an increased awareness of energy costs generally, and researchers began an earnest attempt to increase energy efficiency of buildings.

The spectre of a warming world has driven home the lesson that we must reduce consumption of carbon-based fuels for the sake of our grandchildren. That, in turn, has led to more research by organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States (NREL).

I recently introduced readers to one NREL project — the development of OpenStudio, an open-source software program amenable to the development of third-party plug-ins running on the OpenStudio platform.

A plug-in application called COFEE demonstrates the power of OpenStudio.

It's an idea that has been tried before, with limited success. However, the advent of a powerful software platform like OpenStudio, now makes the notion practical.

Are you comfortable as you read this? Feeling a bit cold? A bit warm?

If you're in an office, chances are you'll either change the thermostat—perhaps making someone else uncomfortable — or you'll call your building energy manager and complain.

At the NREL's Research Support Facility, things work differently.

Each occupant has a desktop application, called a "building agent" that allows them to provide immediate feedback on their satisfaction with the temperature, lighting, airflow and noise levels in their area.

Employees can also send a text message.

"What we're trying to do is to include people in the control loop," said Nick Long, an NREL engineer.

"We wanted to have the feedback from the people to also provide some capability to say 'it's too hot.' Or maybe 'it's too sunny,' or 'there's too much glare'."

"Or perhaps they feel there isn't enough air movement — things like that.

"We want to have that feedback so that we can give the information to building managers in an aggregate, useful way."

All the feedback, along with the location of each employee, goes into a database, along with data from local sensors and the building automation system, to provide a comprehensive view of the building's energy performance.

Think of it as energy modelling on the fly — not only for a single building, but, thanks to the power of OpenStudio, an entire campus if you wish.

Here is an example that makes the NREL software a powerful tool. Since the Research Support Facility has operable windows, the system can also send messages to building occupants telling them when to open or close their windows.

Buildings are the source of a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, so more efficient use of energy is a key part of reducing those emissions, both by extensive energy modelling during a building's design stage and by further modelling from day-to-day while keeping employees happy in their workplace.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to

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