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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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A guide to paint sheens, from glossy to matte

Yas sheen yas (but also, in some cases, no)

Sam Frost

So you’ve done the hard part—after much debate you’ve finally settled on a paint color. Now, the merchant wants to know what sheen you want and there are so many choices. We asked artist Mary McMurray to help us sift through the options.

For the past thirty years, Murray has run her own color consulting business, called Art First Colors for Architecture, in Portland, Oregon. Her unique perspective—she’s an artist and also became a licensed painting contractor in order to mix her own colors—makes her an authority on the medium. Here’s a cheat sheet for choosing the right paint sheens.

1. In general, there is a sheen scale

The first thing to know is that sheens typically exist on a scale, usually from flat (no shine) to glossy (ultra-shiny), with steps in between. According to McMurray, a loose sheen scale that accelerates in shine quality looks like this: flat > matte > eggshell > satin > semi-gloss > gloss or high-gloss.

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The sheen designations can be a little confusing at times because each paint manufacturer coins their own. For instance, at Benjamin Moore, satin is also referred to as Pearl. At Farrow & Ball, sheens are referred to as emulsions. In general, however, a scale will exist.

2. Shine tends to equal durability

The general rule for matching a paint sheen to the room is this: The higher the shine level of the paint, the more durable it will be. This means different sheens are appropriate to different areas of the home, depending on their activity level.

There can be exceptions to this, thanks to modern developments in paint formulation. For instance, Sherwin-Williams now makes a line of flat paint called Emerald that they advertise as having the same “washability and durability as the matte or glossier sheens.”

3. Low sheen for low traffic rooms

The lower end of the spectrum, that being the flat and matte sheens, are typically used for low-traffic rooms since the finish is susceptible to marks and stains that don’t easily wipe off. This makes these finishes good for places like adult bedrooms or home offices—as opposed to kid’s rooms where there is more activity.

When picking a flat sheen for a wall, McMurray suggests using the highest quality paint possible, as it will be more durable in the long run. “If you do happen to get a handprint on a flat-finished wall that you used a cheap paint on, and you try to wipe it off, it’s probably going to destroy the finish,” she says.

4. Higher sheen for high traffic or moisture-prone rooms

Since higher shine equals higher durability, use an eggshell, satin, or semi-gloss in the bathroom, kitchen, hallways, and kid’s rooms. This ensures that constant exposure to moisture doesn’t affect the finish and impromptu stains or scuffs can be cleaned off the walls easily with a sponge and cleaner.

In the bathroom and kitchen, make sure to extend the same sheen to the ceiling that’s being used on the walls. “In the kitchen, it depends on what kind of cooking you do and how much ventilation you have,” says McMurray. Some people might be able to do a matte finish in a kitchen but a safer bet would be eggshell or higher, for ease of wiping down splatters.

5. Highest sheen on trim and doors

Baseboards, doors, and trim are probably the hardest hit surfaces in your house. For that reason, opting for satin or semi-gloss will protect them. “For trimwork, I like satin or semi-gloss depending on what the project is,” says McMurray. The higher sheen will highlight the architectural features and allow them to contrast with the body of the wall surface nicely, while also surviving nicks and scrapes better.

Just be aware that higher sheen paints are thinner in consistency, and can be harder to work with and control for a smooth finish (depending on your painting skills, of course). For this reason, self-leveling paints, like Benjamin Moore’s Advance line, are extremely helpful. McMurray does not often specify a gloss or high-gloss finish, except for the occasional client who wants a standout front door.

6. Consider the overall effect in the room

In addition to selecting a sheen for its function, McMurray cautions people to also be aware of how it will look in a room. Consider the wall surface quality as well as the sheen’s overall effect. Lower sheen paints will soak up more light rather than reflecting it, which is good if there is imperfections in your wall surface that need to be hidden. Shinier paints will reflect light and draw attention to bumps and divots in drywall or plaster.

The latter can be “very distracting,” says McMurray. “I like flat finishes on the ceiling, partly because that doesn’t offer any distraction with light bouncing off the surface and it creates a calmer effect,” she says.

Noise amplification is also something to consider. “If you painted a whole room in semi-gloss, the light would feel very noisy,” says McMurray. “You would get a lot of glare reflected and it wouldn’t be a very calm and peaceful environment.” She has read studies wherein it was discovered that audible noise increases with the degrees of sheen.

7. For the exterior, go more matte

Exterior paint has a similar range of sheens, yet here McMurray cautions against painting your whole house satin, even if the logic is that the shinier finish will stand up better to the weather and elements. “Then your house looks kind-of like a big plastic box,” she says. “So I would not recommend satin on the siding.” Instead, save satin for the exterior trim and paint the body of your house flat or “low-lustre.”

Looking for the perfect shade of white paint? We’ve got you. And check out all our advice for painting your home here.

Continue reading A guide to paint sheens, from glossy to matte

6 Futuristic Projects Sprouting Green Roofs

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In steady progression, tiny ecosystems rich with flora and fauna are changing the face of our built environment. From reducing storm water runoff and city dust to energy-efficient cooling, the benefits of green roofing go beyond beautification. In less than a decade, the green roof movement has experienced a major boom—and as costs lower and technology makes installation easier, this environmentally conscious trend is increasingly defining the facades of both existing and new buildings.

Most recently, lawmakers in France passed a law requiring all rooftops on new buildings built in commercial zones to be partially covered in plants or solar panels. The legislation joins similar already instated in cities including Toronto and countries including Switzerland.

Here, Interior Design spotlights six recent projects with spectacular green roofs, from an art storage and research center that nearly disappears into the landscape, to an addition to a high school sunk below a football field, to a youth center with dramatic triangular green roof geometry that melds with an adjacent medieval castle, and more. 

Zeimuls, Centre of Creative Services of Eastern Latvia by SAALS. Photography by Ingus Bajars.

 

1. Firm: SAALS

Project: Zeimuls, Centre of Creative Services of Eastern Latvia

Location: Rezekne, Latvia

Standout: A triangulated green roof is the dramatic defining aspect of a competition-winning youth center, built around this Latvian town’s main tourist attraction, a medieval castle. Despite the geometry of the facade, rooms in the plastered concrete 65,000-square-foot-structure are spacious rectangles soaked in natural light, drawn in from a ground-level interior courtyard and windows of assorted shapes and sizes. 

Storage and Conservation Facility for the Musée du Louvre by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Image courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

2. Firm: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Project: Storage and Conservation Facility for the Muse?e du Louvre

Location: Liévin, France

Standout: The entire sloping roof of this 215,000-square-foot storage and conservation facility, housing 250,000 pieces of art, will be covered in vegetation. Set to break ground in 2017, the $65.4 million project 120 miles north of Paris will also feature a glazed facade, light-filled work spaces, and the latest technology in climate control and flood protection. 

Gammel Hellerup High School by Bjarke Ingels Group. Photography by Jens Lindhe.

3. Firm: Bjarke Ingels Group

Project: Gammel Hellerup High School

Location: Hellerup, Denmark

Standout: Sections of a new two-story arts building, part of a 27,000-square-foot addition to this high school, are sunk below the football field. Conceived to provide a direct route to the front entrance, BIG’s design plan allows students to walk from the adjacent multipurpose hall and sports complex, sunk 17 feet below ground, to classrooms, cafeteria, and to the street. Informal seating on the roof of the arts building provides a view of games underway. 

Espace Bienvenüe by Jean-Philippe Pargade Architecte. Photography by Luc Boegly.

4. Firm: Jean-Philippe Pargade Architecte

Project: Espace Bienvenüe, the Pôle Scientifique et Technique Paris-Est (PST)

Location: Marne-la-Vallée, France

Standout: A 660-foot-long undulating wave of verdant green grass forms a rooftop park at Université Paris-Est’s technology and science center, the Espace Bienvenüe designed by Jean-Philippe Pargade. Completed in 2014 within a $100 million budget, the center is situated on a sprawling 17-acre site a 20-minute drive from Paris. Its 430,000 square feet of floor area includes 270 square feet of office space, 110,000 square feet of laboratory space, a 250-seat amphitheater and meeting space, and a 1,700-seat restaurant. 

Primary School for Sciences and Biodiversity by Chartier Dalix Architectes. Photography by David Foessel.

5. Firm: Chartier Dalix Architectes

Project: Primary School for Sciences and Biodiversity

Location: Boulogne Billancourt, France

Standout: Three levels of vegetation bloom at this 70,000-square-foot primary school with 18 classrooms and gymnasium—the latter in a separate structure—located just outside Paris. With the goal to encourage the return of biodiversity to this urban center, Chartier Dalix Architectes created a three-tiered hanging garden planted in 20 inches of soil above the gymnasium and a living wall of prefabricated blocks of concrete. The concrete has two finishes—the visible layer is polished, while the other sides are ribbed and rough like natural stone, inviting nesting for birds and insects. 

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center renovation by FXFOWLE in collaboration with Epstein. Photography by David Sundberg/Esto.

6. Firm: FXFOWLE in collaboration with Epstein

Project: Jacob K. Javits Convention Center Renovation

Location: New York, NY

Standout: As part of a two-phase renovation and expansion undertaking, square-footage at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center will balloon from 1.9 million to nearly 6 million square feet, with additional exhibition space, meeting rooms, service areas, support space, and food service areas, as well as an associated hotel. Phase 1, already completed, included re-cladding the entire building enclosure and planting grass over almost the entire surface area of the roof.

View the slideshow for more images from each project

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Quality Products Needed To Meet Green Building Standards Today

Sustainable healthcare facilities will need energy-efficient building enclosures from the outset.

Continue reading Quality Products Needed To Meet Green Building Standards Today

8 Things You Never Knew You Could Get at IKEA

There’s more than just furniture at the Swedish store; here are the most unexpected offerings.

Continue reading 8 Things You Never Knew You Could Get at IKEA

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