The myth of technological progress lies at the center of human-computer interaction. We are all invested in the idea that big problems can be solved with big solutions, big data, more algorithms, and Moore’s Law. For the past two years, I’ve been studying the green building industry in the U.S. And I’ve noticed that a similar myth of technological innovation is at play, with real consequences for our sense of what is possible today .
The myth of technological progress often revolves around a utopian vision of the future, where innovation has solved our most pressing and complicated problems, including poverty, hunger, and climate change. Upon reflection, these are simple problems made complex by us pesky humans. In the case of poverty and hunger, the problem is not that we do not have enough resources, but rather that they are so unequally distributed. In the case of climate change, the problem is that our activities are spewing out too much carbon dioxide. So, while redistributing resources is a complex sociopolitical process, it should not take a global accord or a major technological breakthrough to reduce the rate at which fossil fuels are turned into carbon dioxide. In the building industry, we already know how to do this, yet this sector is responsible for about 40 percent of carbon emissions. Economic growth in places such as Brazil and China, combined with the adoption of Western-style climate-controlled buildings, represents both a tremendous threat to the climate and an opportunity for transformation.
Within the field of architecture, HCI’s focus has been on enabling architects to create ever more expressive and avant-garde designs. Architecture schools, in particular, are hotbeds of innovation in parametric design, which, when wedded with CNC fabrication, holds the promise of delivering Frank Gehry levels of complexity on constrained budgets. Some architects have connected parametric design tools with an ecological sensibility, designing elaborate sunshades, while others have put processors into building control systems. Back in the 1980s, the French architect Jean Nouvel designed an award-winning building clad with motor-controlled shutters that evoked Islamic art. Researchers in HCI have made a push into the relationship between energy use and building systems, first focusing on changing occupant behavior through energy dashboards. The consensus, however, seems to be that making people aware of their energy use effects only short-term reductions. More encouraging is the commercialization of this technology through products such as the Nest thermostat, which are setting the stage for large-scale demand-reduction management.
Yet the widespread assumption is the building industry is still waiting for technological progress to arrive—that we don’t have the building materials, the technology, or the design tools needed to effectively address climate change. A parallel assumption is that radical change will be needed in the building industry: Architects need to be computer programmers! Builders must be roboticists!
Thankfully, it’s not that hard. The answer has been around, depending on who you ask, since about the 1970s, well before parametric design ruled the day, and well before personal computers could run spreadsheets. Known by several different names, including super insulation and passive house, the idea is quite simple: Use physics to make a building work like a really, really good Thermos. Provide lots and lots of insulation, so that heat and cold stay where they belong. Use good windows, and don’t put too many of them in places on a building where they will contribute to too much heat gain or too much heat loss. Build it to be airtight, with materials that are readily available on the market. Use a simple mechanical device to provide plentiful fresh air without losing a lot of energy. And use a computer program or spreadsheet to make some calculations and predict whether the building will perform as intended. Do it right and it’s easy to hit net-zero energy by putting just a few solar panels on top, while ensuring the building’s design allows it to coast through power outages without freezing or broiling the occupants. This is called passive survivability, and it’s a way the passive building concept differs from the net-zero energy buzzword.
Well, it’s not that hard—until you fire up the computer program or open the spreadsheet. The two big players in the space are called the Passive House Planning Package, or PHPP, which is simply a heavily customized Excel spreadsheet, and WUFI Passive, which is a modification of a program developed by German building scientists to model moisture and thermal flows in buildings. While a SketchUp plugin for PHPP has reduced the amount of data entry required—previously a user would have to tally the surface area of every exterior wall, window, and even window frame—both approaches make the user do some deep digging for data that, as it turns out, doesn’t readily exist. Ever tried to find out exactly how efficient a heat pump is at the average temperature in the place where it will actually be used? Testing standards exist, but manufacturers often report data at only one or two temperatures.
Another task that is important but complicated is calculating the extra heat flow where window glass meets the frame; the spacer that holds the glass panes in place often transmits more heat than the glass or the frame. Accounting for this thermal bridge is important in guaranteeing a building will be as efficient as planned. Calculating this value requires the use of another software tool, called THERM, and learning its idiosyncrasies. For programmers who write code and building scientists accustomed to reading measurements from sensors and probes, these programs may seem easy to use, but for designers and builders accustomed to SketchUp, the interface is daunting.
Complexity, of course, is useful. Mastering WUFI means a designer can not only check for compliance with energy targets but also confirm that a design will be comfortable for its occupants and less prone to moisture damage. But the maxim of “garbage in, garbage out” still applies; for example, a WUFI user must be careful to specify the U.S. version of drywall and not its German equivalent. Some organizations, such as the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS), have started to ease this process by certifying building assemblies such as windows, therefore reducing the need to use THERM and other tools. But even still, a user must perform some translation; for example, the value PHIUS lists as “psi-spacer” is described in WUFI as the “glazing to frame” value. When these values differ on each side of a window due to differences in the frame design, even the order is different; PHIUS lists them as “head-sill-left-right” and WUFI as “left-right-top-bottom.” It’s no wonder, as these programs have strong ties to the macho world of building science, which, like many engineering cultures, sometimes values “hard” data over “soft” social factors. But this cuts out a broad base of potential users. Designers are wonderfully creative people, but in my experience they tend to have little patience with clunky tools. We’re talking about a tribe of people known for an affinity for designer clothes, Moleskine notebooks, and extra-fine-tipped pens. Their software tools should be as elegant.
It’s easy to imagine a building industry that could be much more proactive in solving the issue of climate change if we could just shift one core assumption. Rather than banking on a complex technological solution, architects, builders, and developers can use a solution that we already have by applying tools that are, even in their current form, not all that hard to use. As the Volkswagen diesel-emissions scandal has made clear, HCI has an important role to play, too, by looking more critically at the computational interfaces that are quite literally creating (or destroying) our shared environment.
One possible contribution would be to move programs such as WUFI and PHPP to an open source model. This might drive innovation and ease of use. Another approach would be to simply barge in on the conversation and apply what HCI already knows about user interface design to make programs like WUFI more user-friendly. We could also establish open data format standards so that organizations such as PHIUS, the German Passive House Institute, and companies that make products such as heat pumps and windows can provide designers robust data on product performance, which makes it easy and quick to create an energy model.
Recognizing these opportunities to make small adjustments to clunky but useful software could yield big results. Shifting even a tiny fraction of the time and talent spent on the development of smartphone apps or driverless cars could yield a significant reduction in carbon emissions in the near future. Creating more users of software packages such as WUFI or PHPP by lowering the barriers to entry would likely result in the construction of more low-, zero-, and positive-net energy buildings. This is one solution to climate change, and it’s one that can be done now. Let’s get to work.
Jonathan Bean is an assistant professor of markets, innovation, and design at Bucknell University. His research deals with domestic consumption, technology, and taste. firstname.lastname@example.org
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