With energy costs threatening to reach record levels this winter, schools and colleges from coast to coast are scrambling to find ways to enhance the efficiency of their physical plants. Researchers and architects are hard at work developing innovative ways to help educators lighten the burden of escalating fuel costs.

A private middle school in Washington, D.C., plans to use smart-building technology that will, among other things, shut off an air conditioner when a window is opened.

A new research center at the University of California, San Diego, is being billed as a “living laboratory” of intelligent technologies, where variables such as room temperature and lighting adjust automatically to a user’s individual tastes.

And a wall of windows at a University of Pennsylvania engineering building has built-in blinds adjusted by a computer program that tracks the sun’s path.

Across the country, school buildings are getting smarter–and the next generation of building materials is expected to do even more.

Windows could trap the sun’s energy to heat hot water. Sensors that measure the carbon dioxide exhaled by people in a room could determine whether the air conditioning needs to be turned up.

“More potential products have been invented in the last 15 years than in the entire prior history of architecture,” says Philadelphia architect Stephen Kieran. “We’re only beginning to tap the potential of those materials.”

Kieran’s firm, Kieran Timberlake, is working with a number of schools, including the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., to develop more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient buildings.

Patrick Mays, chief information officer for architecture firm NBBJ, which worked on the UC-San Diego project, compared the evolution of “smart” building technology to servicing a luxury car.

When a car goes into the shop, he said, it’s hooked up to a diagnostics tool that enables technicians to see how different systems-from the engine to the air conditioner-communicate with each other.

For the most part, “systems are more well-integrated in manufactured products than in buildings,” Mays said.

But all that is changing with the advent of more intelligent technologies. Though the buildings might cost more to outfit up front, he said, the long-term benefits of technology could save stakeholders thousands–if not millions–of dollars over the building’s life cycle.

New materials are being used to cut down on energy costs, make better use of solar power, and provide a more efficient means of managing the various environmental control systems at work in today’s buildings.

They range from old ideas, like “green roofs,” where a layer of plants on a roof helps the building retain heat in winter and stay cool in summer, to new ideas, like special coating for windows that lets light in, but keeps heat out.

Most commercial and public-sector buildings in the United States still lack the most rudimentary technology, such as timers for lights, but the idea of buildings that use technology to save energy got a boost from the 2000 energy crisis, when California experienced blackouts and electricity prices rose.

That year, the U.S. Green Building Council launched a program to accredit building professionals in environmental design. Interest in the program, called LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has skyrocketed. Since 2000, about 19,000 people have been accredited-9,000 in one recent month alone.

About 4 percent of new commercial construction is now completed under LEED guidelines, said Taryn Holowka, a spokeswoman for the Green Building Council.

NBBJ’s Mays said there are five primary systems in school buildings that could benefit from more centralized technology management.

Voice and data components-including cabling, power jacks, phones, and network-based projection equipment-all could be improved by an integrated management system that lets facilities managers power down different systems from remote locations, he said.

Security systems, including door locks and surveillance cameras, as well as life-safety devices such as electronic signs and sprinkler systems, also could make more efficient use of technology, Mays suggested. Heating, cooling, and electrical systems could be improved upon as well.

In the future, Mays envisions school buildings and other public facilities outfitted with control panels similar to the dashboard in a car, enabling administrators to manage many of these operations from one centralized location. The problem, he said, is that too many of these systems now operate independently.

“There is a real redundancy between many of these systems, because they don’t talk to each other,” he explained. As smarter technology interfaces become more readily available, Mays expects administrators of schools and colleges will leverage these features to make better use of resources and cut down on unnecessary spending.

Smart-building technology in the United States was formerly reserved for large projects and major college campuses.

“Now we’re seeing it make its way down even to the residential market,” said Jim Jones, an architecture professor at Virginia Tech. Think of the motion-sensing lights common outside garages and front doors.

As technologies such as sensors become cheaper, their uses spread. Examples abound in the corporate world.

For instance, the elevators at Seven World Trade Center, which is under construction at New York’s ground zero, boast a dispatch system that groups people traveling to nearby floors into the same elevator, thereby saving elevator stops and trips. People who work in the building will enter it by swiping an ID card that will tell the elevators their floor; readouts will then tell them which elevator to use.

The building also has windows with a coating that blocks heat while letting in light.

More sophisticated building materials are in development. Architect Stephen Kieran’s firm is working on “smart wrap” technology that uses tiny solar collectors to trap the sun’s energy and then deploys transmitters the width of a human hair to move the captured energy to where it can be used to cut costs.

“The materials in smart wrap are either commercially available, or they’ve been developed in corporate or university research labs,” Kieran said. “They’re poised to change the face of the construction industry in the next decade or so.”



Kieran Timberlake