When McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, released a report on energy efficiency in July, it caused quite a stir among building science researchers. Called “Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy,” the report concluded that an upfront investment of $520 billion in efficiency measures could shrink this country’s non-transportation energy consumption in the next decade by 23 percent, or $1.2 trillion. That’s a considerable return on investment.
There is, of course, a catch. To realize such savings, the United States would need to rally around a national agenda. “Energy efficiency offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. economy—but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it,” the report states.
When it comes to building science research in this country—including everything from seismic and safety issues, to materiality and performance, to indoor air quality and moisture—we don’t do “comprehensive.” American building science research is, at best, piecemeal; at worst, it’s barely funded. There is no federal agency that spearheads research endeavors, and no dedicated funding stream that supports scientists. The building industry itself—architecture, engineering, manufacturing, construction, and maintenance—is a $1-trillion-per-year business employing some 1.7 million people, but it simply does not invest in R&D the way that, say, pharmaceutical companies do. The building sector spends one-tenth as much on R&D as the national average for other industries, according to Mark Frankel, technical director of the nonprofit New Buildings Institute (NBI).
The McKinsey findings resonated with building science researchers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that buildings represent our nation’s biggest energy sink. The same month that McKinsey released its report, Drury Crawley of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building Technologies Program sat before the House of Representatives to make the case for R&D into energy-efficient building. In 2008, he explained, the nation’s 114 million households and more than 74 billion square feet of commercial floor space accounted for nearly 40 percent of primary energy consumption and 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. The total energy bill amounted to $418 billion. The message was clear: If we want to reverse this tide, we had better support the scientific research of buildings.
So how much money is invested annually in building science research in the U.S., and what, exactly, is being funded? It seems like a simple enough question until you start digging. Since there is no one government agency driving a building science agenda, no national clearinghouse, you must look to the myriad public and private agencies conducting applied and academic research. This work is scattered among national laboratories, a few private companies and utilities, industry-academic coalitions, and a handful of university research centers run by faculty and students.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) seems a logical place to start this quest for numbers. With an annual budget of more than $6 billion, the NSF is the funding source for 20 percent of all federally supported research at American colleges and universities. Turns out, however, that building science isn’t a line item in the NSF budget. “The National Science Foundation funds fundamental research and education across a wide range of ... areas; however, NSF funding generally does not focus on application areas. As a result, it’s very difficult to assign specific funding levels to application areas such as building sciences,” explains Joshua Chamot, NSF’s media officer for engineering and chemistry.
This may help explain why so few universities include building science research in their curricula. “I have been decrying this condition in Washington in every venue I’m given,” says Vivian Loftness, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture and the director of its Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics. “What it’s doing is starving the schools of any sustained dollars that would ensure tenure, ongoing Ph.D. programs, and research. Without these resources, the number of building scientists that graduate every year is probably under 100.”
Edward Arens, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, runs a building science research program through the school’s Center for the Built Environment. He has dedicated his professional career to research and says it has been difficult to attract new talent because funding is so sporadic. “People I work with got into this in the Carter administration, and we’ve been holding on by our fingernails ever since,” Arens says. “There’s a whole generation of missing people who didn’t come into this field. We simply couldn’t attract them.”
Without sustained funding, it’s hard to keep university programs running. “We simply do not have enough sources for endowment,” says Deane Evans, executive director of the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at New Jersey Institute of Technology. “NSF should have building science as a priority, but they don’t believe in building science.”
The federal funding that does exist for building science research is increasingly being funneled into high-performance buildings. The DOE has emerged as the governmental fountainhead, with $140 million of its $25 billion budget going toward building research this year. A portion of that $140 million supports partnerships with industry and other governmental agencies; another slice funds research at the DOE’s national laboratories.
Other government agencies invest modest amounts into research, such as the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which provides workspace for more than 1 million federal employees. Its budget has vacillated from $2 million to $8 million in recent years (current fiscal year numbers are not available). The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency within the Department of Commerce, includes the Building and Fire Research Laboratory, which got $30 million this year for research into fire, materials, seismic and disaster scenarios, and high performance.
The federal dollars going to building science research amount to a minimal percentage of the overall research budget. In 2007, the U.S. Green Building Council released a report on green building research funding, which found that, from 2002 to 2004, green building research accounted for approximately 0.2 percent of all federally funded research, despite the fact that the construction industry represented 9 percent of the nation’s GDP during that time.
Besides the feds and universities, there are a handful of nonprofit organizations, such as the NBI, that dedicate a portion of their funds to applied research. Most, however, fund the dissemination of findings and not the research itself. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), for example, has an annual budget of $8.5 million, most of which goes to applications. “We take the research that has already been done and then figure out how to apply it to standards and codes,” explains Gretchen Hesbacher, director of communications for NIBS.
What about the building industry itself, and that paltry R&D percentage? Loftness wishes manufacturers of building products would up their investment in R&D, to be on par with the IT industry. Companies like Google, she points out, “are [not only] getting good research at an affordable price, they are creating a new generation of thinkers in their field. We are not doing that in the building sector.” Then again, the fragmented nature of the industry may be largely to blame. “There are a lot of small players,” says the NBI’s Frankel. “It’s hard for one player to generate the research, so it tends to fall to the feds and other agencies.”
The feds, however, have no national building agenda or sustained sources for financial support. Tracked over time, funding for building science research in the U.S. begins to look like a mountain range: a series of peaks and valleys, with the peaks usually attributable to a calamity or an urgent need. It evidently takes a crisis for the U.S. to invest in research.
For instance, the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign came about in 1944 because President Franklin D. Roosevelt supplied resources to create low-cost housing for returning soldiers. Likewise, NIBS was founded during the energy crises of the 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter encouraged investment in new technologies such as solar. That funding died in the Reagan years and never fully recovered.
Compare what we’re doing with what other countries are doing. Germany’s public-private Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft supports all kinds of research through 60 institutes around Germany (and more research centers elsewhere), and it places a high priority on building science research. In 2007, Fraunhofer spent 200 million euros ($295 million) on materials research alone—that’s more than the annual building research budgets of the DOE, the NIST, and the GSA put together.
Asian countries are now attracting top researchers from the U.S. “We are way behind the Europeans and the Japanese, and we are now moving behind the Chinese. We’re losing ground pretty quickly,” Loftness says.
John E. Fernandez, a faculty member of the Building Technology Program in MIT’s Department of Architecture, estimates that he spends up to 40 percent of his time tracking down research money. He and his colleagues increasingly look to other countries because it’s easier to get money from Portugal or Singapore than from the U.S. “The big issue with federal grants is that they are extraordinarily time- consuming. We’ve gotten more money from international agreements that require less time to administer,” he says.
Getting funding, agrees Berkeley’s Arens, has “been a nightmare” in recent years. “It might get better when Obama’s people can open the valve.”
The new administration has opened the valve to allow an influx of money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Our latest crisis has resulted in a new wave of funding for building science, with some funds steered toward the DOE and NIST for initiatives such as net zero housing. But it remains to be seen whether the research community is prepared to take full advantage of this one-time subsidy. “Over the last decade or two, the federal investment has really dwindled,” Frankel says. “Now there’s this infusion of money, and frankly, there is no one to do the work.”
Because the foundation for research has been so corroded, because there is no national agenda or federal agency steering the ship, and because industry has not seized the initiative, there is concern that the money won’t go to the best use.
“The architectural field is so slow compared to any other kind of science. It’s just amazing,” Arens says. “I’m looking back at my career and it rankles because I did a lot of things, but we could have done so much more. There could have been better progress.”
WHO’S GOT WHAT LITTLE FUNDING THERE IS?
Department of Energy: Total fiscal 2009 budget: $25 billion. Last year, $140 million was allocated for building science research. In addition, the DOE will receive a one-time infusion of $346 million from the stimulus act for research into energy-efficient buildings.
National Institute of Standards and Technology: Total budget this year: $819 million; budget for building science research: $30 million (plus a $23 million stimulus bump).
General Services Administration: $2 million to $8 million per year.
U.S. Green Building Council: Put $2 million into a green building research fund in 2008 and has committed to an additional $1 million.
University of California, Berkeley, Center for Environmental Design Research: About $1.5 million per year.
New Buildings Institute: Total annual budget: about $4 million; research budget: about $1.3 million.
New Jersey Institute of Technology: $800,000 to $1 million per year.
Carnegie Mellon University: $500,000 to $1 million per year.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $500,000 per year.