Better Buildings Through Science

Gail Brager of Center for the Built Environment (CBE) spoke Wednesday at UC, Berkeley. She talked about the program’s mission to improve the design, operation, and environmental quality of buildings. Environmentally buildings are important, consuming 36% of total US primary energy, 65% of electricity, and 12% of potable water; they produce 30% of US greenhouse gas emissions. (Numbers for both residential and commercial buildings.)

But environmental arguments, and even the cost of energy, do not strongly appeal to building owners. The energy costs over the lifetime of the building are about 1% of salaries. Green building ideas need to demonstrate their ability to make workers happier – productivity benefits from increased control of temperature, the indoor air quality, and lighting may be of more economic benefits than the direct savings on energy costs.

US green buildings find two important obstacles. American law, in contrast to European law, is less likely to specify quality of environment. Additionally, there is more neglect of life-cycle costs here (even more of a problem in buildings constructed for lease), more focus on “first costs”.

There have been complaints that LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System looks at points rather than success. In CBE’s survey, LEED buildings rate higher among users for general satisfaction, thermal comfort, and air quality, but about the same for office lighting and acoustics. Discovering why and what can be done about this is part of CBE’s work.

Three of their projects will be mentioned here, see their web site for more information.

Windows that open are more expensive initially, but offer many benefits: reduced energy consumption, improved comfort, fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome, and a connection to nature (which helps cognition! A study demonstrated it!) The largest barriers are fire codes and an emphasis on thermal comfort standards that show a preference for a narrow range of temperatures. However, a CBE study shows people using windows allow and prefer a range of temperatures, in contrast to workers in air-conditioned buildings.

American buildings usually have air distribution through the ceiling, but air distribution via floor vents allows individuals to regulate temperature for their workspace. Reduced energy and life-cycle building costs accompany greater individual control of the work environment.

Lighting is responsible for about half of the electricity in commercial building use, and increases air conditioning costs. A lighting-control system developed by CBE took only 6 minutes for untrained people to learn, and produced a 2/3 drop in energy for lighting. It wasn’t only a desire to reduce energy use: the glare bothers computer users.

Improvements in building construction have long-lasting implications for energy use and for working conditions, as building stock turns over slowly. Most of us live and work in climates where occasionally opening windows will improve our attitude (and cognition!). So we can all appreciate working in buildings built using these and other findings of Center for the Built Environment.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Mary Ann talks about her husband’s use of carpool subsidies to bicycle to work. Healthier and richer, not bad.

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