Why you should think of buildings as systems

Energy conservation is a significant concern today and buildings are an obvious place to start. About 40% of the energy we produce goes to run them.

As you’ll read below, getting smart about construction materials and how they work together can make a sizeable impact both in terms of the energy consumed and the building’s lifespan. But going further, adding real-time instrumentation and monitoring can reveal useful insights that can help us make an even bigger impact tomorrow. — Kevin Ebi


By Gary Parsons, The Dow Chemical Company

Smart city solutions often talk about technology-defined “systems,” but this phrase also applies to building construction. The concept of the building as a “system,” which we’ll explore in this article, refers to an approach to building construction that integrates materials in such a way that the building is greater than the sum of its parts — yielding a more resilient, energy efficient structure from inception.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2015, about 40% of total U.S. energy consumption was consumed in residential and commercial buildings. To advance the future of sustainable structures, cities will need to focus on establishing smarter buildings as a system, applying an integrated approach during construction that harmonizes technology and efficient building materials.

Dow Building and Construction conducted research to examine how science is enabling a new generation of energy-efficient building solutions. Over the course of four years, Dow used instruments to capture the qualitative and quantitative data in 12 occupied single-family homes in Midland, Michigan – though the results are equally applicable to commercial buildings too. To ensure the validity of the study, each of the homes were comparable in size, floor plan among additional key features, but varied in insulating and air sealing systems.

After generating all the comparative data from instruments within the enclosures, tracking for energy consumption, humidity, moisture levels, heat flow and temperature of the homes, results showed that buildings with spray foam insulation in the cavity and continuous insulation on the outside created a more resilient, energy efficient home. The real-time data also proved that this building as a system had a longer life-cycle with higher durability throughout the seasons. 

Not all buildings are built with systems thinking. Oftentimes the contractor omits exterior continuous insulation, which can drastically effect moisture control and lead to mold within the walls.

The field research allows for builders and contractors to understand how building systems work over yearly periods and monitor performance in real-time in different climate zones to ensure that buildings are designed to last. By pairing technology and science, and continually testing and improving building systems, structures of the future can be built right from the start for efficiency. IT systems can be brought to bear not only to measure how buildings are performing, but to provide insights on how wall system design can affect such performance.

As more cites look to embody a more livable, workable, and sustainable environment for residents, there continues to be an unmet need for information technology to monitor the health of structures and buildings. As we implement these technologies, we can keep a long-term eye on building health to make sure that we are building resilient, long-lasting, sustainable structures.

Gary Parsons is a fellow at The Dow Chemical Company.