The future of efficiency lies in occupants and controls

Insights from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) 2016 Summer Study

Conferences typically leave me excited for the future of our industry and inspired to pioneer and innovate. Located in one of the most beautiful, natural landscapes in Asilomar, California, the 2016 ACEEE Summer Study in was no different.

The following is a summary of my personal highlights:

  1. Lindsay Baker presented data from the Comfy app [] which I’d heard about previously – and knew PAE had partnered with in the development stage – but now realize I’d never fully understood. It’s much more intelligent than I’d assumed and does what we wish control systems actually did – control the building for the occupants. The app – which is beautifully simple – connects occupants to their location in the building, instantly warming or cooling the space, based on their personal comfort preference. The result is lower energy use, while attaining improved occupant comfort. Even better, the subscription-based business model means software/firmware updates and maintenance are performed regularly.

  2. Therese Pfeffer [] from CIEE at UC Berkeley is working to apply computer science and programming to building controls. Their developments allow building sensors and actuators to be controlled using Python code. Although it may seem unintuitive to replace one programming language with another, Python is significantly more accessible, versatile and dynamic than the vendor-specific languages. I don’t think we’ll start hacking all our buildings with Python but I see this as a disruptive technology – something that will force the notoriously outdated HVAC controls industry to innovate and grow.

  3. Ahmed Tukur from the University of Dayton presented new Fault Detection and Diagnostics algorithms that prevent rouge zones from dominating static pressure reset of air flow. Without this FDD algorithm, one faulty VAV box can drive air flows higher than what you’d see in a constant volume system and force them to stay high. This innovation – although the opposite of “trendy green”– is incredibly useful and widely applicable, especially as codes require more complex HVAC controls.

  4. Alex Herceg from Lux Research [] took a big-picture, market perspective on HVAC technologies. His analysis rated HVAC technologies on two simple metrics: potential HVAC energy savings and payback time. One with the highest savings opportunity was demand control ventilation, some of the lowest are alternative cooling, evaporative cooling and thermal energy storage. His research also showed startup companies rating high in both technical value and excellent business execution, are the companies developing sensors and controls.

My macro-understanding from these talks, and others, at the Summer Study, is that the AEC industry needs to be focusing on two things: occupants and controls.

I believe that, as an industry, we are moving away from the “austerity phase” – where energy efficiency is targeted even at the expense of occupant comfort or wellbeing. Instead, I see designers focusing on technologies that provide both improved comfort and increased energy savings. Even more, I expect we will increasingly see occupant behavior integrated into design and viewed as an integral part of the building operations and controls.

Unlike the archaic building controls industry, the software industry has gone through several, massive revolutions, creating products that are intensely user-focused and flexible. These products impact every aspect of our lives, except the buildings we live in. Massive shifts in the software industry have typically been due to a disruptive innovation, not a slow modification of the norm. Similarly, the building controls industry won’t evolve through slightly better modifications of the same closed, proprietary software. We need drastically different approaches that allow operators and occupants to interact with their buildings in the same engaging and dynamic way we interact with our smart phones.

With growing global environmental concerns, change is imperative. We need to design buildings that uncompromisingly both minimize energy use and optimize occupant comfort. As mechanical engineers, we have a critical role to play in this revolution – so let’s get to work.

Side note: An emphasis on occupants is also something I concentrated on in my paper and presentation for the Summer Study. If you’re interested in reading my paper [], or any of the papers presented at ACEEE, you can find them on the ACEEE website [].

Lizzie Adams