Intersection of building energy efficiency and cooling technologies: a new era in building design

  • The world has just witnessed the hottest months in recorded history, and the outlook is far from optimistic.
  • Rising temperatures are driving greater cooling demands, threatening to trigger a vicious cycle of higher electricity use and carbon emissions.
  • In a planet simultaneously facing unprecedented urbanization and a climate crisis, the intersection of building energy efficiency and cooling technologies has never been more crucial.

“Buildings, traditionally significant energy consumers, are now faced with the dual challenge of providing comfortable indoor environments while minimizing their environmental footprint,” said Clara Camarasa, Energy Efficiency Policy Analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA). “The ever-increasing demand for cooling has led to the widespread use of energy-hungry air conditioning systems, significantly contributing to both peak electricity demand and greenhouse gas emissions. Striking a balance between indoor comfort and energy conservation has become an urgent mission.”

Efforts to create energy-efficient buildings and cooling systems require a comprehensive strategy. Integrated building design takes into account essential factors like building orientation, shading, insulation, and natural ventilation to minimize the need for mechanical cooling. Prioritizing passive design methods allows buildings to leverage natural elements for maintaining comfortable indoor environments.

Passive Cooling Techniques

In areas characterized by temperate climates, passive cooling strategies provide environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional cooling approaches. Strategies such as night purging, cross-ventilation, and evaporative cooling harness natural airflow and temperature variations, delivering optimal indoor conditions without the need for energy-intensive cooling equipment. For instance, cross-ventilation optimizes airflow to replace warm air with fresh outdoor breezes. Evaporative cooling capitalizes on water’s cooling effect, offering an efficient, low-energy method to stay comfortable.

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The House of Silence / Natura Futura Arquitectura. Image © Lorena Darquea

 

Combining energy-efficient building design with renewable energy sources creates a powerful synergy. Photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, and solar thermal systems produce clean energy to power cooling systems, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and accelerating the transition to carbon neutrality.

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Summer House / DDAANN. Image © BoysPlayNice
Technology and Innovations in Materials

Challenges in achieving energy-efficient cooling demand innovative solutions. Retrofitting existing structures is a common challenge, but advancements in materials and technologies are making it easier. High-performance building materials with superior insulation properties and thermal control allow older buildings to embrace energy-efficient designs, reducing the need for extensive structural modifications.

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CB House / Alventosa Morell Arquitectes. Image © Adrià Goula

 

Changing user behaviors is another challenge, as occupants’ habits can impact cooling efficiency. Innovative technologies, such as smart thermostats and occupancy sensors, help users adopt sustainable practices effortlessly. These devices enable automated adjustments, learning from user preferences and occupancy patterns to optimize comfort while conserving energy. By addressing these challenges with inventive approaches, we can ensure that energy-efficient cooling becomes the norm, fostering a sustainable and comfortable built environment.

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CB House / Alventosa Morell Arquitectes. Image © Adrià Goula
Efficient Smart HVAC Systems

Efficient smart heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are revolutionizing cooling in buildings. These systems use advanced sensors, data analytics, and automation to optimize cooling based on occupancy, weather, and thermal loads. This dynamic adjustment not only conserves energy but also ensures occupant comfort. They adapt to occupancy patterns, reducing unnecessary cooling when spaces are empty, and respond to changing weather conditions to maintain comfort without excess energy use.

Paul Chávez, Associate of User Experience and Technology at ARUP, suggests that buildings could become significantly more intelligent by harnessing the collective knowledge and actions of their occupants. Spearheading the project BREO (Building Resource Expression and Optimization), Chávez highlights the untapped potential of engaging occupants in actively conserving energy in buildings. The project creates a responsive system that communicates real-time resource usage. The system equips buildings with “express” data from building electrical, thermal comfort, air quality, water, natural gas, lighting, and audiovisual systems through sensory outputs.

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BREO Light Displays. Image © Bruce Damonte
Policies and Stakeholder Engagement

Government regulations and incentives play a crucial role in promoting this energy-efficient cooling and many nations have already set ambitious targets for carbon neutrality and energy efficiency, including the Net Zero emissions goal. Policymakers worldwide are realizing that achieving these targets necessitates a paradigm shift in cooling practices, emphasizing sustainability and energy conservation. Furthermore, such initiatives are in direct alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Goals like SDG 7, which calls for affordable and clean energy, and SDG 13, focused on climate action, underscore the urgency of transitioning to eco-friendly cooling technologies. By prioritizing energy-efficient cooling and fostering collaboration among stakeholders, we create an opportunity to meet these international goals while ensuring a future where cooling is both sustainable and comfortable”, said Clara Camarasa.

In summary, the key to creating a sustainable built environment lies in combining energy-efficient cooling techniques, cutting-edge technology, and renewable energy sources. By implementing creative policies and working together, we can accelerate our journey toward achieving Net Zero objectives, making a significant contribution to a more environmentally aware and climate-resilient world

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Barcelona Prepares Climate Shelters to Keep Residents Cool During the Summer Months (2022). Image Courtesy of Barcelona City Council

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This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Decarbonize Architecture presented by Holcim.

Driven by its purpose to build progress for people and the planet, Holcim is decarbonizing building, while improving living standards for all. Holcim empowers architects and developers across all regions to build sustainably. This series explores how cities of the future can be low-carbon, circular, and resilient.

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