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Univ of Virginia researchers land 2-million to design smart building energy systems


September 27, 2010
By Anthony Capkun

September 27, 2010

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers at the University of Virginia has been awarded a four-year, $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop smart building energy systems for residential and commercial buildings.

The researchers will focus on reducing energy used by buildings’ heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, which are estimated to account for about 43% of all energy used by U.S. homes, and more than 60% used by homes in colder climates, says the university.

The plan is to develop sensors and user interfaces that will allow
building occupants to better control the building temperature and enable
the building to better sense and automatically respond to occupants.
The team will also be designing new HVAC equipment and building
exteriors (envelopes) to improve the speed and efficiency with which
buildings could respond to occupants.

“Right now, the prevailing wisdom is that buildings should be efficient
in their steady state of operation; if you’re going to constantly heat
the building, you should be efficient at doing that,” said Kamin
Whitehouse, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science
and principal investigator for the grant. “We are going to dynamically
control buildings, and so we need to revisit that whole philosophy and
ask the question: How can we design equipment and buildings to more
quickly respond to occupant behaviour?”

Researchers will address this question by drawing on the expertise of
faculty and students from the Engineering School’s departments of
Computer Science, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Systems
Engineering, as well as those from the School of Architecture and Darden
School of Business. The researchers also will work with Staengl
Engineering (a local energy-efficient HVAC and mechanical systems design
firm) and with architect Carrie M. Burke.

To meet the energy-reduction target, the researchers are developing a
range of technologies, including next-generation wireless sensors and
human/computer interfaces. They will use sensors to monitor electric and
water loads, occupant motion in buildings, door and window positions,
light, temperature and humidity.

The project also will employ biometric height sensors to identify
different residents in the home. Ultrasonic height sensors hidden above a
house’s doorways are perceived to be less invasive than other
identification technologies, such as cameras or microphones.

On the most basic level, the sensor and instrumentation would allow a
building to automatically detect when certain rooms are occupied and
then automatically activate the heating or cooling system. The research
becomes more complex when considering issues such as predicting when
people would return to a building so that the system can preheat or
pre-cool spaces, the cost of sensors and the return on investment from
energy savings.

Darden professor Andrea Larson is helping the team of technology experts
turn the energy systems into an economically viable product for
consumers. One aspect of her work will be to determine the proper price
point for these technologies to gain widespread consumer adoption.

“Technology can be ahead of the market, be hard to sell to its ultimate
users and be priced inappropriately,” she said. “Early adoption, to be
followed by widespread adoption, requires careful selection of first
customers and your early supplier partnerships. It also requires a good
understanding of the marketplace, including your strategy within the
existing competitive context, how you are differentiated, the
competition’s likely response, pricing and regulatory issues.”

Because adoption of an innovative system, such as smart building energy
systems, requires that people change their existing patterns of
behaviour, an advanced analysis of market conditions will be essential.
Larson’s work in this area will address economic and behavioral
incentives for prospective users and buyers.

Larson notes that the project has to demonstrate that it can save money
for people who purchase and use it. The financial returns and ancillary
benefits, including improved air quality, greater comfort and therefore
higher satisfaction and/or productivity, must be significant enough to
attract investors as well as system purchasers. The systems would need
to appeal to a range of buyers encompassing homeowners, commercial
building developers and owners, government agencies and schools.

— With files from Zak Richards