Buildings slated to get a lot ‘smarter’

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

Ellen Simon


Lights controlled by sensors that measure sunlight.

An air conditioner that shuts off when a window is open, or built-in blinds adjusted by a computer program that tracks the sun’s path.

Buildings are getting smarter — and the next generation of building materials is expected to do even more. Like windows which could trap the sun’s energy to heat hot water, or sensors measuring the carbon dioxide exhaled by people in a room to determine if the air conditioning needs to be turned up.

“More potential products have been invented in the last 15 years than in the entire prior history of architecture,” says Philadelphia architect Stephen Kieran. “We’re only beginning to tap the potential of those materials.”

The new materials and technology are being used in a wave of buildings designed to save as much energy as possible. They range from old ideas, like “green roofs,” where a layer of plants on a roof helps the building retain heat in winter and stay cool in summer, and new ideas, like special coating for windows that lets light in, but keeps heat out.

Most commercial buildings still lack even rudimentary technology, such as timers for lights, but the idea of buildings that use technology to save energy got a boost from the 2000 energy crisis, when California experienced blackouts and electricity prices rose.

That year, the U.S. Green Building Council launched a program to accredit building professionals in environmental design. Interest in the LEED program — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — has skyrocketed. Since 2000, about 19,000 people have been accredited, 9,000 in the last month alone.

About four per cent of new commercial construction is now completed under LEED guidelines, said Taryn Holowka, a spokeswoman for the Green Building Council.

Many new building materials are first developed in Europe, where energy is more expensive. “The construction industry is behind the times in some ways, compared to many other industries,” said Patrick Mays, chief information officer of architecture firm NBBJ.

More sophisticated building materials are in development.

A new building at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii will be a “net zero energy building,” using no energy from the electric grid. The building will be cooled with piped-in sea water and the condensation on the pipes will be used for irrigation.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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