Where Are the Breakthroughs in Reducing Buildings Embodied Energy? Allen J. Dusault

I make a living reducing energy consumption in buildings (which of course also reduces carbon emissions). And I have had much success leading efficiency programs for major utilities in both the U.S. and Canada. I have also pioneered many innovative technologies for increasing energy efficiency, including residential air source heat pumps, particularly in low income communities.

However, that work is easy compared to my efforts to decrease embodied energy in buildings. Through a start-up company, I have spent the last several years (as time has allowed) devising a novel approach to reducing embodied energy. Instead of focusing on the carbon footprint of construction materials (a worthy endeavor), I have been working on a “paradigm shifting” idea; specifically, using live and dead loads as pre-stress to reduce their structural load. It is a kind of force flip “jujitsu” that has the potential to decrease the amount of structural material needed to support building loads (including in other types of structures like bridges). That radical idea actually won two international innovation awards from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Unfortunately, I might as well have leprosy. Funding that research has proved a Herculean task, consuming much of my free time for the last several years, but with little to show for it. It is too early stage for VCs; government agency grants are primarily solicitation based (it doesn’t fit); foundation funding has largely moved to “invitation only”; civil engineering firms rarely fund other people’s or company’s R&D efforts. That is an oversimplification. A critical distinction is the structural engineering ecosystem. Compare your iPhone to the mainframe computers of fifty years ago. Now compare the structural frame of a house built fifty years ago to one built today. Why radical innovation in the digital world and minor refinement in the construction industry? If we are going to reduce embodied energy in buildings, breakthroughs are needed.

Let me contrast that to my day job reducing building operating energy. When I wanted to fund an innovative energy saving Machine Learning system for a large commercial building, it took two phone calls. I found funding partners galore for accelerating the development of a more efficient space heating system. When one of my colleagues conceived of a much more efficient heat exchanger, there was DOE ARPA-E funds to support its development to commercialization.
Innovation follows the money. Electric cars, better batteries, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, computer hardware and software, photovoltaics, LEDs, etc., have had tens of billions of dollars invested in their R&D. To quote Plato, “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” My contemporary interpretation is this. “Where we invest our research dollars is the best predictor of where we end up.” A corollary might be what we don’t invest in, we don’t get (or is it what we don’t get, we don’t invest in)? We invest way too little in construction R&D.

Thirty-five years ago, I initiated several projects to reduce environmental impacts of concrete, including the carbon footprint, using fly ash and other admixtures. That was a good new idea then and is still is today. But we also need breakthroughs that are not just in better materials.
More fundamentally, our structural systems and building methods also need to be rethought. Many are largely indistinguishable from how we built half century ago with some “nostalgic by design”. And they are quite inefficient. Typically, most of a buildings structural mass is devoted to holding up its own heavy dead load, and not the live loads, the intended support function.

Innovative structural systems will continue to be rare without adequate and open R&D funding,
Let me suggest that foundations have a key role to play. Providing grant funding that prioritizes radical concepts in the construction industry is desperately needed. But who will lead the way?