What does performance “research” mean, exactly? (part 1)

If “research” means original research, and if buildings are created from principles of spatial design, climate responsiveness, structural stability, heat transfer, fluid mechanics, and hydrophobicity, among others, that are already known, then what, exactly, does “research” mean in the context of the built environment? What else is new, in these constructions, that we have yet to learn? More specifically, what can we learn that is generally true, and generally applicable – that can inform the design of future buildings?

To an architect, there is still quite a lot! To a social scientist, there is an equal abundance. But in terms of energy performance…what can original research really offer, that energy modeling or commissioning or just system monitoring cannot?

One study that’s influencing our current work is still in progress by members of the University of Washington Integrated Design Lab in collaboration with BetterBricks and I-Sustain. Several additional people, including NBBJ architects and my boss, have also been closely involved. In this work, the group investigated a number of different Scandinavian hospitals, analyzed their geometry, orientation, layout, loads patterns, envelopes, hvac system design, and energy usage, and distilled a series of truths from the results that are evidently unknown to the US hospital design community. This will be a fantastic resource when it’s published!

One striking result, for example, was the superior effectiveness of decentralized ventilation systems in combination with radiant heating and cooling. While the inherent wastefulness of VAV reheat systems might seem obvious, with the strategy of cooling air to the lowest temperature needed by any of the zones served, and then reheating it locally for all the rest, the majority of American hospitals are designed with this exact system type. The next question, of course, is why? Are they cheaper? Easier to install? More reliable? Or just “the way it’s always been done”? There must be some obstacle out there to changing common practice.

(to be continued…)

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