Innovation comes in two ways: inventing something new or improving what you have. In the building industry, big, bold innovation happens all the time. But I believe the real opportunity is in systemic changes implemented holistically. For many reasons, ours is a fragmented industry, with little collaboration across organizations. Because many of us don’t even see ourselves as a single industry, no one is in charge of the overall picture and we are missing the opportunity to translate even incremental innovations into real transformation.
As the host of our podcast, “Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies,” and leader of our Center for Healthy and Efficient Spaces (CHES), I have had a number of conversations with environmental and building experts about innovation specifically around air quality and sustainability. From academia to government to the private sector, one theme is common: a comprehensive “building industry” and associated standards, doesn’t exist…yet.
I believe this is actually great news, for those of us in the industry and consumers alike. With billions of square feet represented across all types of indoor spaces, a few incremental improvements achieved through collaboration and system-wide integration have the potential to yield major results in terms of costs, environmental efficiency and the overall quality of our building spaces.
An incandescent opportunity
One of the best stories to illustrate the value of collaboration comes from CHES External Advisory Council member, Bill Sisson, Executive Director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in North America. I spoke with him on Episode 5 of our Healthy Spaces podcast, where he shared a story about the transition from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs.
For a hundred years, our society used incandescent bulbs to light our homes and buildings, but these bulbs were incredibly inefficient at converting electrons to light. Roughly 90% of the energy from an incandescent bulb is converted to heat, whereas 90% of the energy from LED bulbs is used for light.
As Bill explained, a study in Europe showed that fossil fuel emissions actually went up during this transition because the removal of incandescent bulbs required more energy from the HVAC system to keep houses warm. “When you think of something as a system-wide approach, you have to account for these things. You have to account for the energy and emissions impact of systems and the interplay that they’ll have,” Bill said.
A marginal revolution in building systems
Jim Freihaut, associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, agrees. When I spoke with him for Episode 4 of the podcast, he noted that buildings are not typically constructed and operated as whole systems like automobiles, aircrafts and other manufactured systems.
“It’s very difficult to look at a building as a whole integrated system and simultaneously optimize its performance in terms of energy efficiency and indoor air quality and comfort performance,” he said.
LED lighting may be one system, whereas air conditioning and ventilation are separate systems. “The industry as a whole is very fragmented in terms of architectural design, architectural engineering, design of equipment to meet the needs of a building’s operational footprint — all those are very different players, and they don’t really talk together in an integrated fashion to come up with an optimal design for a building,” Jim commented.
One solution may lie in what is known as “building information modeling,” or BIM, which is a process for creating a digital version of all of a building’s systems and subsystems. A simulation model could show you how all the systems interact, so that when you change the lighting from incandescent bulbs to LEDs, you can predict what the winter heating system will do. This can be a very powerful tool when you understand and can really model a system made up of other systems. With today’s digital capabilities, this goal of a digital twin for a building is closer than ever before.
Finding efficiencies from this system-wide approach could make a tremendous impact on our world. Buildings account for about 40% of all U.S. energy consumption and a similar proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can find a way to integrate a building’s systems, marginal improvements for energy efficiency could be revolutionary.