Energy-eating buildings are a global issue. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every year buildings in the country account for 36% of domestic energy demand and 65% of electricity demand.
The MIT SENSEable City Laboratory is studying a “customised climate” in buildings. An infrared heating system, called Local Warming, tracks the presence of people in a space and generates a collimated infrared energy beam, which follows the steps of users. The system allows energy savings of up to 90%. A further development will allow each person to customise his/her ‘climate area’ in the building.
“European and US buildings have different problems in terms of dimensions and efficiency,” explains Carlo Ratti, director of the Laboratory. “In Europe, older buildings are smaller and sometimes less efficient, while the USA still suffers from the big McMansion wave. But in both cases a staggering amount of energy is wasted on heating or cooling empty offices or partially occupied buildings.” The McMansion architectural style, born in the 1980s, is characterised by oversized homes and an attempt to produce a luxury effect.
Today, according to Ratti, homes are also able to benefit from smart thermostats such as Nest, property of Google, and these are like low-hanging fruit: “They are very easy to install”, he explains, “and can make a traditional heating system responsive to people’s habits and seasonal changes. They are primarily being used in private homes but they would work very well in public building too.”
It would be fascinating to see how customized heat for each person might work – do we all get our tractor beam? – though I imagine it is prohibitively expensive at this point. Additionally, rehabbing old buildings is a difficult task. Still, there is a lot of progress to be made in the area of energy efficiency: heating whole buildings, particularly homes, can be inefficient. The trick may be guaranteeing owners that they will save money in the long run after paying so much up front for the new technologies.