May 21, 2019

Building Performance and Sustainability

Buildings account for more than half of the world’s electricity consumption — but they don’t always consume energy efficiently.

Worldwide, there are many thousands of buildings that are heated, lit and cooled, even when they’re largely unoccupied. A new research project based at Carleton is using computer modeling and generative design to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s starting with the buildings on campus.

Funded through a $617,000 NSERC Strategic Partnership Grant, SUSTAIN (Sensor-based Unified Simulation Techniques for Advanced In-Building Networks) will make exact digital copies of campus buildings using Building Information Modeling combined with 3D laser scanning technology. The project is a partnership with Autodesk Research, and is using optimization-driven Generative Design software to identify ways that buildings can be made more efficient.

Stephen Fai, Associate Professor in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and Director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio.

“Generative Design allows you to establish parameters, and an algorithm will automatically generate design variations based on those parameters,” says Stephen Fai, Associate Professor in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and Director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio.

“These can include qualities of light, spatial characteristics and heritage characteristics that need to be maintained. The software can automatically generate thousands of different different design variations. Then, you refine your parameters and get it down to maybe 10 design iterations, and that’s when human beings step in and identify which one is best.”

The project will rely heavily on computer modeling and simulation to determine how buildings on campus are actually used and manage their energy use accordingly. In newer buildings, these models could help automate a building’s energy use on a room-by-room basis.

“SUSTAIN involves a mix of theoretical work and practical work,” says lead researcher Gabriel Wainer, Professor of Systems and Computer Engineering.

“We are working on occupancy models of how people move around buildings and campus, and detecting presence of people in the rooms in the buildings using advanced wireless network technology, and looking at ways to move from a simulation to the control systems to give the managers of the building a set of tools they could use to adjust energy use.”

Gabriel Wainer, Professor of Systems and Computer Engineering is the lead researcher on the SUSTAIN Project

Modeling and simulation can help building managers be more proactive in addressing energy efficiency. Building managers are often too busy with complaints, systems failures and general maintenance to focus on less immediate problems like energy efficiency. Computer modeling will allow Facilities Management to test multiple potential solutions and troubleshoot problems before spending any money on implementation, construction, or retrofitting.

“We can give building engineers options to study,” says Wainer. “They will have tools for making proper decisions in an informed and intelligent way. The study can provide a wide variety of options with very low cost compared to building something and then figuring out that doesn’t work.” It will also help identify some low hanging fruit, where small changes can yield big energy savings.

Liam O’Brien, Associate Professor in Architectural Conservation and Sustainability Engineering

“Good intentions often don’t make it into operations,” says Liam O’Brien, Associate Professor in Architectural Conservation and Sustainability Engineering.

“There could be up to 50% energy savings at relatively low cost. Software changes things – like being able to know the schedules and the logic of what turns on when, and why. In field studies, we’ve encountered buildings operated 24 hours a day. Heated, cooled and ventilated as if there are people in them 24 hours a day, whereas for an office building, we expect maybe 12 hours between the first person to arrive and the last person to leave. That’s hugely inefficient. This project will allow us to model the actual use and optimize how the building operates.”

SUSTAIN also presents graduate and undergraduate students with an opportunity to get hands-on experience in building management.

“It’s not an abstract concept or some obscure test subject that we’re working on in the lab,” O’Brien says. “We’re studying the buildings that students are actually in. The students who are funded by this project will have a competitive edge. They’ll have played with data and models. They will have dealt with key stakeholders like facilities management and planning. There is a shortage of people with both theoretical and hands-on experience with buildings. We’re seeing very high demand for our graduates. Not only do they have the theoretical knowledge, they also have a working knowledge of the systems.”

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