Carnegie Mellon University
September 23, 2013

Improving Information Exchanges: How CEE researchers are using energy informatics to make construction more efficient

Improving  Information  Exchanges: How CEE researchers are using energy informatics to make construction more efficient

EEB Hub’s Building 661, which will serve as the Hub’s headquarters after the retrofit is completed, was originally a recreation hall for officers in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Photo: Peter Woodall)EEB Hub’s Building 661, which will serve as the Hub’s headquarters after the retrofit is completed, was originally a recreation hall for officers in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Photo: Peter Woodall)

Imagine being able to walk through a renovated building and not only admire the newly-redesigned workspace, but also evaluate the cost and energy efficiency of every building material used inside – all before the renovations even begin. It sounds impossible, but CEE has helped to make it possible as part of the department’s work with the Energy Efficient Buildings (EEB) Hub. Faculty and graduate students from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture are also participating in the EEB Hub.

The EEB Hub, a Department of Energy Innovation Hub, is a consortium of engineers and scientists from many disciplines working toward one common goal: ensuring greater energy efficiency in buildings. Buildings account for about 40 percent of the energy consumed in the United States; using a “living lab” approach, the EEB Hub is retrofitting several buildings in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia and working with building retrofits elsewhere in the U.S. to find the best practices for energy efficiency. 

For the past year and a half, CEE researchers have been working with EEB Hub research teams to develop more efficient practices in energy informatics, which Professor Burcu Akinci calls “the backbone” of energy efficient construction. “Energy informatics streamline the data needed to run simulations and to understand how a building is supposed to behave or is currently behaving,” she explained. Akinci has been working with Assistant Professor Mario Berges and Assistant Research Professor Semiha Ergan to develop new ways to make sure that the information necessary for efficient construction practices is being properly collected, transferred, and visualized.

Information Exchanges

Berges and Akinci have been working with CEE graduate students and professors from Penn State to understand and identify the information exchange requirements for construction projects involved in a building retrofit. “For example, let’s say I’m a designer of software for energy auditing, and I would like to expose some of the information in my energy model to somebody who’s going to be conducting commissioning of the HVAC system during construction,” Berges explained. “The information items that I need to expose in my software, so that this other person can actually start his job – those are things we’re trying to identify.”

Last year, Berges and Akinci worked with then-PhD student Pine Liu to determine what information was necessary to detect and diagnose problems in an HVAC system. There are currently hundreds of performance analysis algorithms to detect faults in HVAC systems, but most of these algorithms require so much complex information about the building that they are hardly ever used in real-world facilities. Liu studied multiple algorithms and documented the information exchange requirements for each algorithm, then categorized those information requirements.

Through his work, Liu discovered that the vast majority of the information necessary for these algorithms could be found through existing software. “It’s a surprising fact that we have the information and we have the algorithms, but we don’t have a way of making them talk to each other,” Berges said. So, Liu created a system to perform that necessary integration: He developed mechanisms to automatically extract information items from disparate sources and provide them to performance analysis algorithms, which eliminates much of the manual input necessary for the HVAC diagnosis algorithms and makes those algorithms far more usable in real-world situations. 

This year, Berges and Akinci are working on information exchanges among parties in order to streamline the quality control process of what Akinci calls the building envelope, which includes walls, roofs, and mechanical elements. “There’s a lot that we squeeze into these walls,” she said. “It’s like a smaller-scale system of systems coming together, and as the designs get complicated, it’s very difficult to figure out who’s going to install first and how all the pieces will come together.” The building envelope and the mechanical systems greatly impact the energy efficiency of a facility, Akinci explained; without a good quality control process that can capture necessary information during construction, that facility could suffer from undetected energy wastes.

Because of the complicated nature of the system, there is plenty of information that needs to be exchanged between the design, testing, and construction stages, but “most of the processes we’ve focused on have not been documented in detail yet,” Berges said.

Energy Visualizations

One way to ensure that the collected information is utilized to its full potential is to create visual tools that help retrofit participants better understand the data. Akinci and Ergan have been accomplishing that through several visualization projects in the EEB Hub.

Last year, they focused on using immersive visualization approaches to improve collaboration between architects and engineers during the retrofit design process. Ergan explained that architects and engineers work separately 
to create designs based on the requirements from their discipline’s perspective, and meet up approximately once a month to share their findings and to find the best design option that meets all their requirements. “It’s not an easy job — in a limited time, they need to share a lot of documentation, including energy simulation results and design information,” Ergan said. “It’s not efficient to go through the all documents to understand the information and its implications on energy use and life cycle cost.” Through this study, they wanted to identify what information was collectively important for all stakeholders involved and what should be displayed in an immersive visual world, so that they could effectively evaluate design choices for energy efficient retrofits.

To make the information sharing process more efficient, Ergan and Akinci worked with several students to use the data from both engineers and architects to create immersive visualizations of the retrofit design process. CEE researchers have been using the three-dimensional immersive visualization technology in the IBM Smarter Infrastructure Laboratory, which is part of the Pennsylvania Smart Infrastructure Incubator. Using that immersive visualization technology, known as the CAVE, CEE researchers made it possible for people to “walk” through the building designs, evaluate the different building materials used, and compare the life cycle costs and energy use associated with different design decisions. The visualization allows different stakeholders to evaluate the design options without working through large amounts of documents. As Sheryl Yang, a PhD student who worked on the project, explained, “We’re trying to reach out to a broader audience of stakeholders who might not have an engineering background.”

This year’s EEB Hub project is furthering that goal of reaching out, but to a different audience. Akinci and Ergan are creating a building energy dashboard for multiple users at the EEB Hub’s main building in the Navy Yard. The dashboard — which will be accessible to everyone from facility managers to EEB Hub researchers to curious visitors— will grab information from sensor data across the building and give viewers real-time information on the building’s energy usage.

Currently, the research team is wrapping up the requirements identification part of the research, which involves determining what information to include in the dashboard and how to display it to the users. CEE MS student Wei Shao spent the summer interning at the EEB Hub location and compiling questionnaires to find out what information different users would be most interested in seeing. Ergan said that the final product will use the visualizations from the building information model developed last year to present the data in 3D and show how each wing of the building is consuming energy.

By presenting the data in a visual format, Ergan believes that the project will contribute to EEB Hub’s goal of reducing energy usage in commercial buildings by 20 percent by 2020. “We’ll be helping people be much more aware of their energy usage when they are using the buildings,” Ergan said. “They will have much more information on how the buildings work and how they can reduce their energy use.” 

(article republished from CEE NEWS - Summer 2013 issue)


CEE’s immersive visualization technology allows stakeholders to “walk” through the building designs. For a demonstration of the visualization, click here

Rendering pictured on top of page: Penn State Building Energy Sciences Center. Architect: KieranTimberlake. Rendering by KieranTimberlake. Click here for full size image