Smaller footprints: NSF-funded study looks to trim energy use in buildings

Image courtesy of Manish Dixit

Because climate change is fueled in part by buildings’ energy use, Manish Dixit, Texas A&M assistant professor of construction science, is studying how to reduce structures’ energy needs with a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dixit’s five-year, $509,000 research grant is part of a high-profile NSF program that offers highly regarded foundation awards to support early career faculty who have the potential to lead advances in their respective organization as academic role models.

In his study, Dixit will develop innovative, scenario-based models to assess buildings’ current and future environmental sustainability. His findings will inform building design, energy policy, and education in the architecture, engineering and construction sectors.

Researchers have determined that current modes of energy use are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn fuel climate change.

“Buildings consume more than 40 percent of the global energy supply in their daily operating energy,” said Dixit. “But it doesn’t stop there. They also consume embodied energy — the energy required for the extraction, processing, manufacture and site delivery of materials for a building’s construction.”

This level of energy use provides an opportunity to lower buildings’ energy footprints. A first step is analyzing their operating energy and embodied energy.

“The problem is that operating energy and embodied energy are interdependent,” said Dixit. “Reducing one may increase the other. This interdependency must be examined to help make truly environmentally friendly design decisions.”

His models will also include energy-related water use related to building construction and operation.

“Energy use doesn’t just incur greenhouse gas emissions, it depletes earth’s freshwater too, in an era when global water resources are shrinking,” he said. “The public would be surprised to know how much freshwater is consumed to generate electricity, whether it’s from a renewable or nonrenewable source.”

Dixit’s energy-carbon-water models will offer buildings’ environmental assessments for the present time, as well as the multidecade period of a building’s “life.”

“Since the global climate is rapidly transforming, and building energy use is shifting increasingly toward electricity due to the forces of automation, digitalization, urbanization, and globalization, it is essential to build scenarios of future building energy use patterns and energy mix,” said Dixit.

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