The complex art of green architecture

Ali Malkwai, architecture professor and director of T.C. Chan CenterPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

The famed British architect Christopher Wren once said: “Architecture aims at Eternity.” But what about its carbon footprint?

In recent years, there has been a heightened focus among American architects on energy-efficient building, a growing movement to meld form not just with function but with eco-responsibility, too.
Buildings are responsible for 40 percent of society’s total energy consumption, burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels for light, heat, cool air and other forms of energy, says Ali Malkawi, professor of architecture and founder and director of the Penn/Tsinghua T. C. Chan Center for Building Simulation and Energy Studies, which is housed in the University’s School of Design.

But, he adds, concern for sustainability isn’t a new idea. The architectural concept of energy-efficient building has been around “since people first built buildings.” Indigenous architects searched for the best ways to utilize the sun for light, heat and airflow. These buildings were simple constructions, but sustainable.

As buildings became more modern, they became less dependent on their environment. Electricity replaced the sun as the primary light source; gas, oil or coal became the primary heat source, and the introduction of air-conditioning negated concern for air flow. Buildings became more modern, but they also became more dependent on fossil fuels.

At the T. C. Chan Center, Malkawi and staff are focusing on ways to create buildings for the future that are complex, but also energy efficient.
Established nearly five years ago, the Center is one of the few organizations in the country focused primarily on energy and buildings. Its mission is to develop new knowledge, tools, processes, techniques and education for professionals involved in building energy and technology.

“If you’re looking at carbon emissions, [they are] predominately linked to the consumption of fossil fuels for energy in buildings,” Malkawi says. “So the more efficient buildings become, the fewer emissions you’re going to have, and you will be more environmentally conscious.”

Headquartered at Penn in the Furness Building, the Center partners with Tsinghua University in China and has affiliated offices in Paris, Switzerland, Mexico City, San José, Costa Rica and Hong Kong.

The Current recently visited the T. C. Chan Center to chat with Malkawi about sustainable building, its affordability in emerging nations, the Center’s worldwide partners and other green issues.

Q. You mentioned that energy-efficient building is a concept that has been around ‘since people first built buildings,’ but when did it become a major concern in the United States?
A.
Utilizing a lot of energy was not a primary concern until the 1970s when we had the oil embargo. At that time, people woke up and said, ‘OK, what we should do is build buildings that are more energy efficient.’ The problem was that by then, you had a half century of building in which people did not really pay attention to energy efficiency in design. There was lagging knowledge, tools, techniques and a profession that was fragmented. At that time an introduction of newer research, new policies and regulations started to appear. Since the ‘70s, those policies and regulations have been more prevalent and utilized in Europe than in the U.S. The U.S. went back to its original way of doing things a few years after the oil embargo, versus the Europeans, who put in standards and regulations. Energy efficiency in the U.S. depends on the policies of the U.S. government. It was just a few years ago that you started to have more people talk about the environmental impact of more fossil fuel consumption, which is directly linked to buildings and the built environment. We basically began to have awareness by [the general public], as well as by policymakers, that change needs to happen. So this awareness started to basically reflect itself into a move towards energy-conscious buildings. We are still in the beginning, and there’s a lot of work to do to make sure that we are building buildings that are still complicated but efficient.

Q. You serve as an energy consultant to many worldwide building projects. What sort of advice do you give clients on how to make buildings more energy efficient?
A.
The way that I usually get engaged as a consultant with architects in early design decisions is by providing feedback about what kind of solutions can be applied and deployed in the design phase in order to lower the energy consumption. Typically, if you were to employ these solutions early on, you could save 50 to 60 percent of energy in the buildings. The analogy is that if you build buildings that are good to start with, you don’t need a lot of systems to serve them. So a good design would allow you to lower the energy consumption of the building itself ... and accordingly, the energy bill would be much lower as you move forward throughout the building’s lifecycle.

Q. The T. C. Chan Center has worked with the State of Qatar. Can you talk about the work you did in that country?
A.
That project is developing a rating system [that will] assess the impact of the built environment. In concept, it’s similar to the other ratings systems that exist around the world, including LEED in the U.S. and BREEAM in Britain. But this particular system was intentionally designed to be able to measure the performance of the buildings in one score. The intention is for those measures to be objective rather than subjective. It looks into not only energy, but also water, air quality, air pollution, climate change-related issues, land pollution, all the different impacts that result from the built environment. You will have the capacity to rate your built environment from a sustainability perspective, and you will also be able to set policies around it. This influences job creation, technologies and industries that can be created by highlighting different aspects of what needs to be done within the system. It’s currently being deployed as a requirement by a major portion of the [building] projects in that country.

Q. Qatar is a fairly wealthy country. Is it financially possible for less developed countries to build energy-efficient buildings?
A.
Some would argue it’s less expensive to build energy-efficient buildings since most of them rely on simple technologies rather than high technologies; making sure, predominately, that the building breathes. The minute that you allow the building to breathe, the more you have the capacity for it to respond to its surroundings ... The technological aspects are typically not the most important part of making the building energy efficient. It’s basically developing an awareness—from a design perspective—about how you would design the building from an architectural perspective, as well as how you would engineer it.

Q. You mentioned that energy-efficient buildings can save people money and also help sustain the environment. Do you find that people respond more to the idea of saving money or caring for their environment?
A.
I think it’s a combination of both, depending on the client. Some clients are interested predominately in the idea of making the environment better and it ends up being a bonus for them when they learn that they can actually save money by being more environmentally friendly.

Q. How is Penn doing when it comes to constructing energy-efficient buildings?
A.
The T. C. Chan Center, along with other departments and centers, has been helping to steer some of the moves that the University has taken in making buildings more energy efficient. The University received an A- on the 2010 College Sustainability Report Card. President Gutmann has been very much a promoter and supporter of this effort since the beginning. She was the first Ivy League president to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment to lower carbon emissions at the University. The administrative support has been very helpful to us on many different levels.

Q. You partnered with Tsinghua University in China for the T. C. Chan Center. Did you purposely seek out a Chinese partner because of the country’s growing status around the world?
A.
I think the idea, originally, was that we wanted to partner with different institutions in different places where we believed we could have a large impact. China has been building a lot of buildings on a massive scale. The intention is that the more that we help in promoting the ideas of energy efficiency, the better the world can be.

Q. What projects are you working on currently?
A.
We’re now in the process of developing partnerships with some of the Scandinavian countries. They have a lot of research as well as applications in this area. We’re also engaged with other institutions, as well as other entities right here on campus—including Engineering—to put forth proposals to capture federal research funds recently appropriated by the Obama administration as part of the stimulus package. One of the proposals is to develop an engineering energy research center. That’s in collaboration with Professor George Papas [the Joseph Moore Professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at Penn]. It will be a collaborative effort between Penn, Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley. If funded, this would form one of the largest centers in the United States and we would have international partners from Europe and Asia.

Originally published on April 22, 2010