Monday, November 28, 2011

Lecture Today : Re-Engineering Buildings: Innovations in Building Technology

About the Lecture

The built environment consumes a very large share of the nation’s energy, and so offers rich opportunities for reducing our overall carbon footprint. MIT researchers share innovations that could soon radically alter the energy profile, as well as form and function, of buildings. Their work may prove invaluable to those in the real estate or construction industries seeking not just efficiency, but a good investment.

Pumping gas into a car, we can get a good sense of its energy costs, says John Ochsendorf. But when it comes to buildings, which are huge capital investments, “we have practically no literacy” around energy performance. Now we are entering a “new frontier,” says Ochsendorf, as pressure builds to achieve substantial, swift reductions in energy consumption. He is helping to develop new metrics for measuring the amount of energy a building uses over its entire lifespan, from construction through many years of occupancy.

Ochsendorf maps the material and energy flow involved in producing a can of Coke, from the extraction of minerals for aluminum smelting, to the French beets used in its sugar syrup, and suggests that this level of detail should be available for our buildings as well. This means “lifecycle assessment with rigorous benchmarking of building performance,” down to the CO2 emissions per square foot. Ochsendorf is working with concrete and cement manufacturers to help them achieve steep reductions quickly, and to design buildings that use local waste material such as clay, and operate with zero net energy use.

The value of buildings derives from their capacity to “protect and enhance the health, safety and well-being of occupants and communities,” says Sarah Slaughter. There are measurable benefits, too: Acoustically quiet classrooms improve student retention, and reinforced buildings can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. Slaughter is interested in using “low impact development” for healthy, resilient buildings. She takes a “system of systems” approach, examining first the interaction of systems within a building. Could use of rainwater capture, for instance, decrease the need for non-potable water, or could “daylight harvesting” permit the downsizing of artificial lighting? Slaughter next considers the building’s connections to the larger environment, including its neighborhood and region.

She sees a “value-added chain” that ultimately includes municipalities and state and federal agencies. By targeting the right links in the chain, one can achieve both performance enhancement and cost efficiencies. This leads to “clearly demonstrable bottom-line benefits -- less than a year payback for some upgrades” as well as improved buildings that “allow people to complete their organizational missions more effectively.”

Alex (Sandy) Pentland hopes to make buildings more productive and efficient, but focuses on people rather than structures. He has devised methods for mapping human activities, following cellphone and other wireless signals. For example, Pentland can track face to face meetings taking place in an organization, and troubleshoot areas of low-productivity. He describes changing the time for coffee breaks in a Bank of America call center, and saving that business $15 million. He has detailed how “tribes” of people move about in cities, and can make astonishingly accurate predictions about where and when these groups go to eat and the kinds of things they buy. Real estate developers could look at transportation patterns, for instance, and build stores in places convenient to a target group. These tools are powerful enough to reveal socioeconomic patterns, such as crime rates, disease and even life expectancy among different groups. Data mapping, believes Pentland, will prove increasingly useful to many institutions, although it presents some perils around privacy issues.(Source :

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