Friday, October 16, 2009

Building Science Research

Team California's design for the Solar Decathlon.

Tomorrow I will brave the cold and the rain and head south to D.C. to see the prototype houses set up on the National Mall for the Solar Decathlon. (Germany just edged out Illinois for first place in the overall rankings.)

The Decathlon is an event that advances building science research and encourages universities to examine high efficiency home design. But overall, the U.S. and the building industry are simply not investing enough sustained capital into research and development in spite of the fact that buildings are our biggest energy sink.

My latest feature article in Architect magazine looks at how much money is invested into the science of designing better buildings and where that money is going:

Shaky Foundation
Taming the economic, environmental and geopolitical cost of energy has emerged as a natinal imperative. So why are research dollars for building performance so scarce?

When McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, released a report on energy efficiency in July, it caused quite a stir among building science researchers. Called “Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy,” the report concluded that an upfront investment of $520 billion in efficiency measures could shrink this country’s non-transportation energy consumption in the next decade by 23 percent, or $1.2 trillion. That’s a considerable return on investment.

There is, of course, a catch. To realize such savings, the United States would need to rally around a national agenda. “Energy efficiency offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. economy—but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it,” the report states.

When it comes to building science research in this country—including everything from seismic and safety issues, to materiality and performance, to indoor air quality and moisture—we don’t do “comprehensive.” American building science research is, at best, piecemeal; at worst, it’s barely funded. There is no federal agency that spearheads research endeavors, and no dedicated funding stream that supports scientists. The building industry itself—architecture, engineering, manufacturing, construction, and maintenance—is a $1-trillion-per-year business employing some 1.7 million people, but it simply does not invest in R&D the way that, say, pharmaceutical companies do. The building sector spends one-tenth as much on R&D as the national average for other industries, according to Mark Frankel, technical director of the nonprofit New Buildings Institute (NBI). READ MORE.