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Designing Sustainable, Energy-Efficient Buildings

Developing a perfectly energy-efficient building is relatively easy to do—if you don’t give the building’s occupants any control over their environment. Since nobody wants that kind of building, Professor Christoph Reinhart has focused his career on finding ways to make buildings more energy-efficient while keeping user needs in mind.

“At this point in designing buildings, the biggest uncertainty comes from user behavior,” says Reinhart, who heads the Sustainable Design Lab in MIT’s Department of Architecture. “Once you understand heat flow, it’s a very exact science to see how much heat to add or take from a space.”

Trained in physics, Reinhart made the move to architecture because he wanted to apply the scientific concepts he’d learned to make buildings more comfortable and energy-efficient. Today, he is internationally known for his work in what architects call “daylighting”—the use of natural light to illuminate building interiors—and urban-level environmental building performance analysis. The design tools that emerged from his lab are used by architects and urban planners in more than 90 countries.

The Sustainable Design Lab’s work has also produced two spinoff companies: Mapdwell, which provides individualized cost-benefit analyses for installing solar panels; and Solemma, which provides environmental analysis tools such as DIVA-for-Rhino, a highly optimized daylighting and energy modeling software component. Reinhart is a co-founder and strategic development advisor at Mapdwell, and he is CEO of Solemma.

Through it all, physics has remained a central underpinning. “Everything our lab develops is based on physics first,” says Reinhart, who earned master’s degrees in physics from Albert Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg, Germany, and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Informing design

A lifelong environmentalist, Reinhart says he was inspired to study architecture in part by the work of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, which built a completely self-sufficient solar house in Freiburg in the early 1990s.

While finishing his master’s thesis, Reinhart says, he also read an article that suggested that features such as color can be more important than performance to architects choosing a solar system—an idea that drove him to find ways to empower architects to consider aesthetics and the environmental performance of their designs at the same time. He began this effort by investigating daylighting at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, Germany.

Light is incredibly important from a design standpoint—architects talk of “painting with light”—but there are also significant technical challenges involved in lighting, such as how to manage heat and glare, Reinhart says.

“You need good sky models and you need good rendering tools to model the light. You also need computer science to make it faster—but that’s just the basics,” Reinhart says, noting that the next step is to consider how people perceive and use natural light. “This really nuanced way of thinking is what makes daylighting so fun and interesting.”

For example, designers typically render buildings with all the blinds open. If they learn that people will keep the blinds down 90 percent of the time with a given design, they are likely to rethink it, Reinhart says, because “nobody wants that.”

The daylighting analysis software developed by Reinhart’s team in 1998 provides just this kind of information. Known as DAYSIM, it is now used all over the world to model annual daylight availability in and around buildings.

Reinhart has also published textbooks on daylighting: “Daylighting Handbook I: Fundamentals and Designing with the Sun” was published in in 2014, and a second volume, “Daylighting Handbook II: Daylight Simulations and Dynamic Facades,” was released last October.

“Daylighting was really my first way into architecture,” Reinhart says, noting that he thinks it’s wonderful that the field combines “rock solid science” like sky modeling with more subjective questions related to the users’ experience, such as: “When is sunlight a liability?” and “When does it add visual interest?”

Teaching and advising

After earning his doctorate in architecture from Technical University in 2001, Reinhart taught briefly at McGill University in Canada before being named an associate professor of architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. In 2009, the student forum there named him faculty member of the year.

In 2012, he joined the faculty at MIT, where he typically supervises seven or eight graduate students, including about three working on their Ph.D.s. Often, he also has students working in his lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Several students majoring in computer science have proved particularly helpful, he says.

“It’s amazing what MIT students can implement,” he says.

Reinhart is also an instructor, of course, notably teaching 4.401/4.464 (Environmental Technologies in Buildings), which focuses on how to assess the energy efficiency of buildings.

“There’s nothing more fun—especially at an institution like MIT—than to teach these concepts,” he says.

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) is now working to make that subject available online via MITx, and the class is expected to be part of a planned graduate certificate in energy, according to Antje Danielson, MITEI’s director of education.

City-scale modeling

Meanwhile, Reinhart has scaled his own research up to modeling energy use at the city level. In 2016, he and colleagues unveiled an energy model for Boston that estimates the gas and electricity demands of every building in the city—and his team has since assessed other urban areas.

This work has underscored for him how significant user behavior is to calculating energy use.

“For an individual building you can get a sense of the user behavior, but if you want to model a whole city, that problem explodes on you,” Reinhart says, noting that his team uses statistical methods such as Bayesian calibration to determine likely behaviors.

Essentially, they collect data on energy use and train the computer to recognize different scenarios, such as the energy used by different numbers of people and appliances.

“We throw 800 user behaviors at a sample of buildings, and since we know how much energy these buildings actually use, we only keep those behavioral patterns that give us the right energy use,” Reinhart says, explaining that repeating the process produces a curve that indicates the buildings’ most likely uses. “We don’t know exactly where people are, but at the urban level, we get it right.”

Determining how energy is being used at this broad scale provides critical information for addressing the needs of the energy system as a whole, Reinhart says. That’s why Reinhart is currently working with Exelon Corporation, a major national energy provider, to assess energy use in Chicago. “We can say, let’s foster these kinds of upgrades and pretty much guarantee that this is how the energy load throughout a neighborhood or for particular substations will change—which is just what utilities want to know,” he says.

The food-energy-water nexus

Recently, Reinhart has also begun investigating ways to make food production more energy-efficient and sustainable. His lab is developing a software component that can estimate food yields, associated use of energy and water, and the carbon emissions that result for different types of urban farms.

For example, hydroponic container farming—a system of growing food without soil inside something like a shipping container—is now being promoted by companies in some cities, including Boston. This system typically uses more electricity than conventional farming does, but that energy use can be more than offset by the reduced need for transportation, Reinhart says. Already, Reinhart’s team has shown that rooftop and container farming on available land in Lisbon, Portugal, could theoretically meet the city’s total vegetable demand.

This work exploring the nexus between food, energy, and water is just the next level of complexity for Reinhart in a career dedicated to moving the needle on sustainability. Fortunately, he’s not alone in his work; he has sent a host of young academics out into the world to work on similar concerns.

Reinhart’s former graduate students now work at universities including Cornell, Harvard, Syracuse, and the University of Toronto, and he continues to collaborate with them on projects.

It’s like having a growing family, says Reinhart, a father of two. “Students never leave. It’s like kids.”

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Why thoughtful kitchen design is good for your health

Kitchen design always begins with putting people’s domestic habits under the microscope. What, when, how and where are we eating? How and where do we socialise? Where do we read, watch, work in the home? What rubbish do we jettison, and where? The evolution has been gradual, but today’s kitchen bears little resemblance to the room in the 1950s that was used to knock up quick family dinners.

The desire to live healthily and our growing knowledge of how daily habits affect wellbeing are perhaps the biggest influences on kitchen design today. It’s a direction that is being reinforced year by year, so much so that last year’s Global Wellness Summit identified the evolution of the ‘wellness kitchen’.

It is an evolutionary leap jumpstarted by the move towards farm-to-table eating and the desire for local, seasonal, fresh, organic produce, which changes storage needs, increases preparation area requirements and has encouraged the indoor kitchen garden. Changing attitudes towards waste also need to be accommodated. There’s interest in air quality and the reduction of visual and audio noise as a means to soothe busy minds. Meanwhile, the evident wellbeing benefits of a social space in which to cook and eat have led to the kitchen being increasingly integrated within the home.

‘There has never been so little kitchen – or as much: the entire floor plan is being rethought,’ proposes German manufacturer Leicht. ‘There is an evolution going on: from the open-plan kitchen to a complete integration of the kitchen into the living area.’ This year, Leicht’s answer is an in-room concept where the working parts of the kitchen are concealed, and the social bits are merged structurally and material-wise into the home. As other examples explored below show, the kitchen is becoming a holistic hub, a place to nourish both mind and body. 

The Social Kitchen, by Cesar

Illustration of The Social Kitchen, by Cesar

Illustrator: Julien Pacaud

Kitchen modules
‘Williamsburg’, ‘The 50s’ and ‘Intarsio’

The big idea
Designed by Garcia Cumini, this kitchen’s features answer the call for social cooking and eating. The ‘Williamsburg’ island is a solid station for prepping and cooking but also serves as a table to sit around and participate, to eat and make merry. Bridge-building mechanics keep the underside clear for leg space, while the two end pieces bear the load. ‘The 50s’ shelving system can house ovens, glass storage and bottle racks, and can extend from the kitchen into living areas, with desk and bookshelf options. And the ‘Intarsio’ cabinetry features a trompe l’oeil play with woodgrain that further pushes the kitchen into the heart of the home.

The Fresh-Food Solution, by Gaggenau

Illustration of The Fresh-Food Solution Kitchen, by Gaggenau

Illustrator: Julien Pacaud

Modular refrigerator
’Vario Cooling 400 Series’

The big idea
The methods of food storage that many of us employ were established post-Second World War, when women increasingly left the kitchen for the workplace and processed foods and microwave meals became the answer to reduced preparation time. With fresh produce (and a desire to reduce packaging) now top of the agenda, appliances such as Gaggenau’s new ‘Vario Cooling 400 Series’ offer variable temperature and humidity to preserve produce at its prime for the longest time. Thanks to its partly transparent doors, the system also helps with another health issue: obesity. If you can see fresh produce, you are more likely to eat it.

The Garden Kitchen, by Giorgetti

Illustration of The Garden Kitchen, by Giorgetti

Illustrator: Julien Pacaud


The big idea
They felt like something of a gimmick at first, but indoor vegetable and herb gardens aren’t going away. They are the ultimate expression of farm-to-table eating, where the time, packaging and mileage is reduced between food source and plate, and the nutritional punch is maximised. Kitchen design now often facilitates a bit of home horticulture, as seen here in Giorgetti’s new ‘GK03’ kitchen, which is designed like fine furniture to blend seamlessly into the home. It features shelving with an integrated system for hydroponic cultivation. The electricity is supplied without cables, so shelving can be moved around easily.

The Sanctuary, by Poliform

Illustration of The Sanctuary Kitchen, by Poliform

Illustrator: Julien Pacaud


The big idea
Paring back is not just a matter of aesthetics. There is a health benefit to clearing up clutter in the kitchen. It not only helps integrate the space into the home, but is key to the peace of overworked minds. A need to clear out unnecessary gadgetry has been identified too. At the very least, put everything behind cupboard doors. Poliform’s latest edition of the ‘Phoenix’ kitchen does it with finesse. Its tall units with doors in black elm and vertical spacers in embossed lacquered carbon allow counter clutter to be minimised, while the concealed shelving keeps everything blissfully organised. §

As originally featured in the July 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*232)

Continue reading Why thoughtful kitchen design is good for your health

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