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Credit: Noah Kalina

Dating from the era of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia’s Navy Yard was a bustling shipyard for more than two centuries. During its World War II heyday, it employed 44,000 people, and by 1995, when the U.S. Navy closed the site, there were over 200 buildings from a pastiche of eras on the 1,200-acre spread. The Navy Yard became a business park, providing office space for about 80 companies, including Tasty Baking Co., the Philadelphia-based maker of Tastykakes, and Urban Outfitters.

Now it has become a laboratory for the buildings of the future. Led by Pennsylvania State University, a consortium of 112 organizations from academia and industry has just received a federal grant of $129 million to study what it takes to build new structures that use minimal energy and to retrofit, for efficiency, everything from modern office buildings to drafty old gymnasiums.

In an interview with ARCHITECT, James Freihaut, the consortium’s director of operations and technology, who is a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State, describes how, in addition to revolutionary components and systems, we need a revolution in collaboration—and in policy.

The Navy Yard consortium is the nation’s third Energy Innovation Hub: the first two, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at CalTech, focus on nuclear energy and solar energy, respectively. Why is this hub focused on energy-efficient building?
We use 40 percent of all our primary energy in operating building systems. Yet unlike the automobile, aerospace, and manufacturing industries, which have seen dramatic decreases in their fuel consumption over the last 30 to 40 years, there has been no really appreciable change in buildings’ energy use. We really need to address this.

How does the project’s focus on retrofitting deal with that problem?
There are 5.2 million or so commercial buildings in the U.S. with lifetimes of 20 to 40 years or more. If you just concentrated on new construction, it would take 20 to 30 years to realize any significant energy improvements. We need to really concentrate on existing buildings and making them much more energy-efficient.

It’s also a much more difficult job to do, technically and economically. If we can tackle the retrofit market, then we will be able to deal with new construction fairly easily.

What does a full retrofit entail?
First, you characterize how much electricity, natural gas, or oil the building uses and break that down to the various subsystems, like lighting and HVAC, to see which aspects of the building are contributing most to that usage. Then you do a systematic “what if” redesign, coming up with technology for each of the components that would radically reduce the energy used.

What new technologies are Hub researchers developing for such retrofits?
One example is active façades, which respond dynamically to the building’s environment. These might have embedded phase-change materials, a wax or gel that can absorb heat as the façade gets hot from the sun. As the heat starts to transmit through the building’s façade into the interior, the phase-change material slows down the temperature increase inside, so that the air-conditioning system doesn’t have to use as much energy to keep up.

We’re also studying building coatings that respond to the intensity of sunlight and become more or less reflective or diffusive, so that the heat doesn’t get into the structure to begin with. People are looking at protective coatings that are also energy generating, as well as photovoltaic shingles and sidings that generate electricity. Crucially, we’re also looking at extensive use of sensors in buildings, to develop a control system that will distribute heating, cooling, and ventilation to where the people are, rather than the building as a whole.

Some of these materials already exist. Some of this technology already exists. But it’s not being used correctly.

One example is on-site power systems, which generate electricity using photovoltaics, wind turbines, gas turbines, or internal combustion engine–based systems, which have the added benefit that all the heat energy from the exhaust is recovered to provide hot water, heating, and even cooling. You can buy systems like these that generate power and store it for the building’s use, like a hybrid car, right now. The reason they’re not used more often is that buildings aren’t designed to use them efficiently, so the payback period may be five to 15 years.

As it stands, a lot of this technology isn’t economically feasible to use in a building.

How much would it cost, per square foot, to have all this technology?
Thousands of dollars. If you wanted a totally instrumented, dynamically responsive building with pseudoactive materials, it would be very expensive.

How can we deal with the cost barrier?
A major problem is that we don’t have good modeling tools that can simulate all the different systems in a building, which would let the design and construction team see the advantages and disadvantages of each of the proposed technologies. The whole package might be overkill for some buildings. Furthermore, many systems are most cost-effective when they are designed in concert with the rest of the building.

They do modeling like this all the time in the automobile and aerospace industries. The reason we don’t do it in the building industry is that the design process is really fragmented. A developer hires an architect. An architect suggests an architectural engineering firm. The architectural engineering firm suggests certain contractors, construction companies. You hire a commissioning agent downstream.

Everybody has their own little design tools and is trying to optimize their profitability from their part of the design. You don’t get a product that gets the best performance for the lowest cost and lowest energy use. We need all these people working together—a vertically integrated industry. For that, we need new design tools. The hub is working on that.

Complicating all this, however, are certain policies. If you are using public funding, you have to have fair competitive bidding on each aspect. If I want to do an integrated design with architectural engineers, contractors, construction, and commissioning agents all in the same room, how can I bid out different parts of the job?

How is the Hub dealing with that issue?
We’re trying to figure how this would work by doing some real projects. At the Navy Yard, we’re renovating a gymnasium that was built in 1942. It may have lead paint problems—a typical retrofit issue—and is historically significant, so it’s going to be a challenge. Furthermore, using state funds for it is going to make it very difficult to do an integrated retrofit.

But, obviously, we want to practice what we preach. We’ll have Penn State physical plant people, who deal all the time with state funds, in on this process, telling us good ideas and explaining the problems they have run into with specific state policies. Then we have to document that and find a way around it that the rest of the industry can follow.

We’re also doing a retrofit with private funds. Urban Outfitters, whose international headquarters is here, has asked us to help renovate a 70,000-square-foot older building.

There will be a different set of issues in each of these projects—and that’s good. We want to see the different issues that come up and figure out a way to either change those polices or to find a creative way to address them.

How much energy would a retrofitted office building save per year? And how soon would such a package be available?
Just by using integrated design and existing technology, we think we can get a 30 percent reduction. With a more intense design process and advances in dynamic controls, smart-grid technology, and materials, we can get to 50 percent. If we really put some long-term effort into new materials and smart-grid technology, we think we can get 80 percent. Though we are still grappling with the business model, the hub hopes to have a package of suggestions for the 30 percent reduction retrofit available to developers within one to 1.5 years.

You’ve received $22 million in federal funds this year and are expecting similar amounts over the next five. But that depends on congressional appropriations. If funding is canceled, how will you spin off what you’ve accomplished into something useful?
We’re not going to accomplish enough in one year, that’s for sure—maybe in three years. Certainly in five years, our plan is to be self-sufficient. It’s actually very complicated, as I think you can see now. It’s not just a technology issue, it’s a policy issue, it’s a business model issue, it’s a cultural issue.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development had an energy-efficient building task force for five years, and their conclusion was pretty much the same thing. If we don’t do integrated design and delivery of buildings, we’re not going to get anywhere in building energy efficiency. But it’s such a complicated problem that no one company, even United Technologies or IBM or GE, can take the financial risk to do what it’s going to take. We need the government to share the risk with us.

The Achilles’ heel of all this could be the policy issues that encourage the current form of behavior. I can guarantee you countries like China and India—who are growing exponentially and want to develop energy-efficient systems—have learned from our mistakes. They’re learning that they need to do integrated designs and building systems development, and I bet you that they do it.