Hacking the System: Creative Engineering for High Performance Buildings


Produce a compendium of recent innovations in building envelope and mechanical systems, exploring the forces that drove these innovations and the circumstances that allowed them to emerge. Identify promising current innovative trends, and the further research needed to advance them.


Buildings account for approximately half the energy consumption in the US. Particularly in the US, conventional buildings are made with lightweight materials that minimize initial purchase costs. Such structures are subject to high levels of heat loss via conduction and convection. Interior comfort is typically provided by mechanical equipment powered primarily by fossil fuels.

Architects, engineers, developers, and builders are responding to climate change with “high performance buildings”—structures that provide needed levels of comfort at far lower energy cost than conventional buildings. High performance buildings use various strategies, including passive measures such as building massing and building orientation. A key principle is use of highly insulated, airtight building envelopes, combined with efficient comfort systems. However, these departures from traditional practices bring challenges of their own: insulation can cause condensation, leading to various moisture-related problems, e.g., mold, oxidation, and corrosion. And some solutions bring unique complications: The envelopes of some high-performing buildings reduce energy use to such an extent that is difficult to find mechanical systems small enough to suit the envelopes.

The best new solutions require creative design that rearranges, recombines, and augments existing systems and elements to respond to particular needs. Innovative thinking may involve an element of fortuitous association or “chance.” But it is often said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” This project aims to prepare the minds of those interested in innovative practices in design of high performance buildings. It will trace the roots of contemporary building technologies in order to understand the key innovations, and their drivers.

Suggested Approaches

(1)  Literature review.  Conduct a review and analysis of high performance building practices (current, and recent past). What forensic envelope analysis has been done? What techniques and products have been developed to address problems? What are the implications for mechanical systems? When did particular trends first emerge? Good resources will be Building Science Corporation materials, Environmental Building News, and myriad other publications.

(2)  Interview researchers and innovators. Collect qualitative data from engineers, architects, builders, and entrepreneurs who are pushing the boundaries for solutions. How are manufacturers responding with research, development, and product adaptation? Strive to understand not merely the developments themselves, but the nature of successful innovative thinking and the environments that encourage it.

(3)  Interpolation and Extrapolation. Based on the above, present a plausible case for what are the most promising current trends in innovative high performance building practice. For each, describe related questions that have not yet been examined, i.e., areas of research needed to further advance the trend.