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Transforming the built environment

The Center for Sustainable Building Research takes the hard science on how the design, construction, and operation of buildings contributes to global warming, and translates it into information on sustainable building and products that people and communities can use.

By Camille LeFevre

 

One hardly needs a dictionary to define the term outreach. The meaning is embedded in the word: to reach out to others. But the definition also extends beyond the obvious to more superlative meanings: "to exceed" and "to provide service beyond conventional limits." Such descriptions encapsulate the exceptional outreach efforts of the Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR) at the University of Minnesota's College of Design.

 

William (Billy) Weber and John Carmody"Our overall mission is basically about transformation," said John Carmody, CSBR's director and winner of the College of Design's 2009 Outstanding Outreach Award. "We're actively addressing issues of transforming the whole built environment, to make sure buildings are sustainably designed and constructed and operate at the highest levels of energy efficiency."

 

To say CSBR's outreach goal isn't simple is to understate what Carmody calls the "seriousness and urgency of the problem" -- that is, global warming, and how design, construction, and the operation of buildings contribute to it. Science shows that the global warming trends that were initially predicted to happen within the next 30 years will be happening in the next 10, Carmody explained. "So we need to treat the transformation in how we design and operate buildings like an emergency."

 

Within the next decade, all new buildings and upgraded existing buildings must operate at extremely low or even zero-net energy use. That's a concept, and a reality, "that can be hard for people to grasp," Carmody acknowledged. So he and CSBR's 10 full-time research fellows work across academic disciplines, in conjunction with funding and government organizations, and with components of the design, manufacturing, and construction industries to translate hard science into information on sustainable building products and practices that people and communities can use.

 

"We're very good translators of the information, but there's a lot of research and creativity that go into that translation," Carmody explained. "You could say our main product is information design." Those information products take many forms, but are aggregated in six primary research-and-service areas: sustainable building guidelines and ratings systems; sustainable affordable housing; building life-cycle assessments; high-performance windows and glazing; postoccupancy building evaluations; and predesign assistance to communities, nonprofit organizations and local governments.

 

Envisioning sustainable projects

Virajita Singh, a senior research fellow, leads many of the interdisciplinary project teams (often including students) that have offered predesign assistance to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Duluth Farmers' Market, the Hennepin County Energy Recovery Center, and the Baudette Depot Preservation Project. Singh's teams help clients envision projects from a sustainable perspective and provide design options and propose funding possibilities. Whether the focus of a project is structural stabilization or energy use, sustainable landscaping or community-based development, "we are sure to address core sustainability issues," Singh emphasized. "We're committed to helping communities and organizations identify sustainable solutions before they move forward."

William (Billy) Weber, the senior research fellow who heads up much of CSBR's outreach in sustainable affordable housing, explained that his work also involves interaction with communities and nonprofit organizations. "A lot of what I do on a daily basis is relationship-driven," he said. "It's about building confidence in people's abilities to make the right decisions about incorporating sustainable strategies into affordable housing by highlighting successes, posting warning signs about what doesn't work, and making knowledge available to people so they can make the best choices."

 

Weber is currently expanding the Minnesota Sustainable Housing Initiative Web site (with ongoing funding from the McKnight Foundation), an information portal for communities, green developers, and nonprofit organizations, to include best practices and technical suggestions for using green building assemblies, rating systems, and guidelines. With this Web site, and other CSBR outreach such as the Internet-based Minnesota Green Affordable Housing Guide, and the Single Family Energy Efficiency Technical Assistance and Verification Program, "We're trying to create a feedback loop of knowledge and lessons learned in affordable housing with regards to sustainability in Minnesota," Weber said.

 

The place for information

Research fellow Kerry Haglund summed up CSBR's outreach mission another way. "We're the place where information on sustainable building can be organized in a way that's beneficial and accessible to everyone." For example, the Efficient Windows Collaborative Web site Haglund developed and designed provides homeowners, architects, and builders with unbiased information on the benefits of a wide range of energy-efficient windows.

 

Moreover, the site includes an easy-to-use window-selection tool that helps people across the country choose the most energy-efficient product by region. The site averages 25,000 visitors a month, Haglund said. CSBR's book Residential Windows: A Guide to New Technologies and Energy Performance, co-authored by Carmody, is in its third edition. But Haglund said the Internet "is the best way to reach out to every level of customer, whether they're individual homeowners, manufacturers, builders, educational institutions, or communities."

 

Another Web site Haglund researched and developed focuses on windows for commercial buildings, and includes tools for designing facades and fenestration systems. Other information tools created by CSBR (Haglund also designs the Web sites for her colleagues' research) include the Athena EcoCalculator for Assemblies, which gives users information on the life cycle of various construction components in commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings.

 

CSBR is currently developing the Minnesota Greenhouse Gas Design Calculator for Site and Building Design, which will help designers determine the carbon footprint of their projects. The tool is part of the upcoming Minnesota Zero-Emission Design Protocol, which will provide methods for evaluating and implementing zero-emission design strategies. It will help designers move beyond Minnesota's Sustainable Building Guidelines (B3), which CSBR helped develop, and the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Guidelines, and toward the carbon neutrality proposed in Sustainable Building 2030.

 

The goal of this CSBR project, which Carmody described as a Minnesota version of the national Architecture 2030 project, is to significantly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in all buildings by introducing and passing legislation that establishes cost-effective, energy-efficiency performance standards for new construction and renovated structures. "The sustainable-building world is quickly evolving, and we need to keep up to date and focused on performance outcomes of buildings," Carmody said. "That's where Sustainable Building 2030 captures people's imaginations."

 

"We're moving from prescriptive standards and best practices into a world of real performance outcomes and measuring performance against meaningful benchmarks," he continued. CSBR projects like Sustainable Building 2030 are actually "ahead of national standards programs in ... developing the right tools to set the right benchmarks, and letting people know how to do it." Such forward-thinking initiatives, coupled with CSBR's eagerness to network with private industry, policy makers, government entities, and communities, while developing user-friendly tools to help people make green design and product choices, have catapulted CSBR to the international arena, as well.

 

Green housing in South Korea

CSBR was one of five research centers in the world approached by the Center for Sustainable Housing in South Korea, housed at Yonsei University, to collaborate on a program for green housing in that country. Through this partnership, the two centers will promote sustainable housing and building technologies in both countries, while complementing each other's research and outreach programs on a global scale.

 

Such collaborations "enlarge our world in the area of sustainable housing," Carmody said. "While I view us as primarily a regional center, many of our tools and programs are applicable at a national and international level. Conversely, we need to be aware of innovations in sustainable-design guidelines and standards outside of the U.S., because the best ideas might be coming out of Germany or Japan or South Korea."

 

At the same time, the partnership with Yonsei "elevates CSBR, and the outreach we do, to another level," Carmody said. "It's prestigious and reflects well on not only our work, but also on the University of Minnesota that houses us, and the College of Design."