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Penn State

The UN selects Penn State to lead a global transformation of the building sector. Here’s how it can be done

The United Nations has tapped Penn State to lead a global network that aims to transform the building sector.

The U.N. is developing a framework for global building standards — for both new constructions and retrofits — that advances energy efficiency and human performance.

In its lead role, Penn State will help provide research and education to support those standards, said Tom Richard, director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. And it’s through an interdisciplinary approach.

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The building sector is about one-third of the global economy, Richard said, and so it involves everyone from building code officers to mortgage finance bankers and electricians and carpenters to architects and engineers.

Buildings account for about 40 percent of humanity’s carbon footprint, he said.

“We have technologies today to drive those carbon emissions to near zero and create net zero energy buildings with fairly cost-effective technologies, but there’s a number of barriers to that,” Richard said.

Those include the way buildings are built and financed; the way people involved in the building sector traditionally interact and the kind of contractual relationships they have; and the technologies are new and haven’t been proven in all parts of the world, he said.

The big question, according to James Freihaut, the technical director of Penn State at The Navy Yard in Philadelphia and a professor architectural engineering, is how do you get a serially fragmented industry — where each entity is trying to maximize its own individual profit while minimizing its performance risk relative to the building — to behave like a virtually, vertically integrated industry that can actually deliver known, measured system performance in a building?

“At one level that sounds like a really overwhelming challenge, and it is ambitious — there’s no question — but we think that there’s a lot of things that make it also possible,” he said.

One is that the cost differential isn’t that great anymore, Richard said, and the second is that these buildings are high-performance, not just with respect to energy, but to human performance, including health and worker satisfaction and performance.

Several decades ago, there was an effort to make buildings use less energy but not perform better, Freihaut said at a housing conference this week at Penn State.

“There are a lot of chronic diseases now that are being epidemiologically related to indoor air quality — not outdoor air quality, but indoor quality,” he said.

Allergic sensitization and asthma rates are going up, he said, describing it as a “tragedy” and “huge medical problem.”

Richard said the Global Building Network is an opportunity for Penn State to extend beyond its own campus and students and existing relationships to the rest of the world.

“We don’t think that the world’s gonna change overnight, but I think we will see significant and measurable progress within three to five years — not just here in Pennsylvania but in many places around the world,” he said.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz

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