Navigant Research Blog

In China, 3D Printing Produces a Village

— April 24, 2014

My earlier blog on 3D printing showed how the process will influence the building industry.  In this blog I’ll report on significant news from China in this field, and describe how 3D printing for the consumer market is quickly evolving, changing the prototyping and product development process.

Earlier this month, the Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. printed 10 small houses in just 24 hours.  This is astonishing, especially given the simple approach and cheap cost of these homes.  While most 3D printing uses plastic polymers, the WinSun project used a slurry of construction waste, cement, and industrial waste deposited on a simple wireframe mesh to construct the walls.  According to an article in The Architect’s Newspaper, each structure cost less than $5,000 in materials.  These buildings are more like the prefab wooden frame construction that has gained traction of late than the 3D-printed buildings mentioned in my previous blog that are currently in production (in print?) in Amsterdam.

Regardless of how much manual labor was needed to build the Chinese village, there are two significant implications.  First, if these structures can be built at a low cost, with minimal assembly and local and sustainable materials, then the future of local housing in the developing world could change very quickly.  Post-disaster housing, long-needed manufacturing facilities, and basic buildings like schools or health clinics could simply be printed with durable materials – and very quickly.  Second, both the printed Chinese village and the 3D Print Canal House in Amsterdam could be designed and printed for optimal energy efficiency based on the characteristics of the locale – not just the state or federal building code.  While a market for these novel approaches has yet to coalesce, the investments in 3D printing from governments and startups around the world will help that market form.

Printing Made Easy

Creating prototypes is a long-used practice in manufacturing, engineering, and design.  The ability to touch and feel a physical 3D object can lend insight into its function and consumer response.  As 3D printers are dropping in price and size, the use of the technology for product prototyping has been growing.  Makerspaces are popping up in major cities around the United States, providing customers with the tools and equipment to print their computer-aided design (CAD) projects for a fee.  Some of these have been funded by local governments and some by local entrepreneurs.  Others are being funded by corporations looking to engage university students and local entrepreneurs.  Last week, General Electric (GE) launched its FirstBuild center, making 3D printing available to local University of Louisville, Kentucky students and faculty.  Students and local entrepreneurs will have access to top-of-the-line 3D printers and CAD software to design and prototype their appliance-related ideas.  This approach highlights the importance of easy prototyping, as well as GE’s commitment to innovation in design for the consumer and building markets.

Meanwhile, local 3D printing is becoming more accessible.  Taking the approach that it is just a different kind of printing, Staples has jumped into the 3D printing game.  While Staples already sells 3D printers and supplies, it recently launched its My Easy 3D service, where customers can upload CAD designs to create their own prototypes.  With the opening of these modern print shops, entrepreneurs and designers can quickly and inexpensively prototype their ideas.  It will be interesting to see how access to easy prototyping will change design and manufacturing, not just in the built environment, but also in our consumer-oriented economy.

 

Decoupling H, V, and AC: DOAS and More

— April 14, 2014

Buildings have long been a target for energy efficiency improvements, as they consume a substantial portion of the world’s energy supply (about 40% in the United States).  More recently, the detrimental effects of poorly designed buildings have been established and buildings have been identified as an area to improve the health of occupants.  Though heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can be used to accomplish both of these goals, they typically cannot achieve both goals simultaneously.  Conventional approaches to improving indoor air quality (IAQ), such as increasing the ventilation rate or increasing filter efficiency, require using more energy, while increases to energy efficiency (such as improving a building’s seal to reduce infiltration) can have adverse impacts on IAQ.  However, addressing the requirements of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning separately have produced innovative approaches to improve health and reduce costs.

A Flawed Paradigm

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning are generally lumped into a single system.  Why not?  For the most part, each task requires a box with fans and coils.  Using a single rooftop unit or air handling unit to provide ventilation, filter recirculated air, and produce comfortable temperatures is convenient.  Unfortunately, a single system can have a difficult time maintaining adequate control over disparate conditions.  In practice, adequately addressing IAQ takes a back seat to maintaining space temperature.

In fact, there is evidence that traditional HVAC designs systematically under-ventilate.  Thermostatically-controlled variable air volume (VAV) systems do a poor job of matching airflow to ventilation requirements, particularly in conference and meeting rooms when they are first occupied.  More people in a room increases the generation of both heat and carbon dioxide (CO2).  However, thermostats have a dead-band, an allowable deviation between the actual and desired temperature to avoid short-cycling and simultaneous heating and cooling. As a result, there is a time lag between when the space is occupied and when more than the minimum airflow is delivered.  Moreover, depending on the conditions, the 55°F supply air can offset the temperature rise quickly and return to the minimum position as the CO2 of the space continues to rise.  Theoretically, the minimum damper position should meet the ventilation requirements of a fully occupied room, but improper damper minimums or poor controls integration can lead to under-ventilation.

Separation of IAQ and Thermal Comfort

Decoupling ventilation requirements from thermal comfort through a dedicated outside air system (DOAS) is one way to address this ventilation issue and improve IAQ.  A DOAS provides 100% outside air to a building to meet the building’s ventilation needs.  Typically, it is equipped with some form of energy recovery to precool and dehumidify or preheat and humidify supply air from what is captured from exhaust air.  As a result, the system ensures adequate ventilation and prevents the spread of contaminants between spaces.  Including a DOAS in a building design improves a building’s IAQ by managing it separately from heating and cooling requirements.

However, improving IAQ does not have to be part of HVAC at all.  Introducing filters and outside air into a system that is already designed to move air is convenient, but the same effect can be accomplished by other means.  Adding plants into a space, for instance, can help reduce CO2 and ozone.

The future of IAQ might not be in HVAC, but in the building itself.  Lauzon, a North American flooring manufacturer, has developed a flooring-based solution, called Pure Genius coating, to manage volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  The coating uses photocatalytic titanium dioxide to break down VOCs into water and CO2.  Of course, when maintaining IAQ, converting VOCs to CO2 is a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.  However, it shows the advances that materials are making.  Solutions to the current limitations of HVAC equipment might come from outside the mechanical universe rather than from incremental engineering improvements.

 

Energy Systems Group Acquires Chevron’s Federal ESCO Unit

— April 8, 2014

On April 1, Energy Systems Group (ESG), a major U.S. energy service company (ESCO) based in Newburgh, Indiana and a subsidiary of utility holding company Vectren Corp., announced that it had acquired the federal sector energy services unit of Chevron Energy Solutions, a subsidiary of Chevron USA. The unit, which consists of 48 employees, will not only expand ESG’s projects and footprint, but more importantly, will also allow ESG to play in the U.S. federal government’s indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) ESCO market.

That market was created in February 2009 when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded 16 ESCOs with DOE energy savings performance contracts (ESPCs).  These 16 contracts allow the selected ESCOs to provide federal agencies with up to $5 billion of performance contracts each.  The program effectively prequalified the 16 ESCOs to perform energy efficiency services for many of the federal government’s largest facilities.

Narrowing the Competitive Field

Although ESG had been an active player in the federal ESCO market through other avenues prior to the acquisition, such as utility energy service contracts (UESCs – a twist on the traditional ESPC in which federal agencies procure performance contracts through their local utilities), the acquisition allows it to narrow the competitive field for large contracts offered only to ESCOs.  Given that the federal market represents one of the most promising segments in the challenging ESCO market, as Navigant Research wrote in its report, The U.S. Energy Service Company Market, the acquisition positions ESG to benefit from the full scale of the federal ESCO market. “The federal sector is one of our primary targets for growth in the coming years,” said Greg Collins, president of ESG, when I spoke with him.  “This acquisition strengthens our position in delivering on a wider range of federal opportunities.”

Note that other ESCOs have entered the federal market through acquisition.  For example, in 2007, SAIC (now Leidos) acquired BENHAM Companies to gain access to a broader swath of federal building customers (though this was before the establishment of the IDIQ market).

The federal sector has been a key focus for ESCOs in the United States over the last few years.  While the municipalities, universities, schools, and hospitals (MUSH) market remains a challenge due to the winding down of stimulus funding for municipal performance contracts and concerns about municipal debt, ESCOs have patiently awaited the boost to the market that was initiated by the Better Buildings Initiative, the $2 billion federal performance contracting program announced by President Obama in December 2011.

So far, the program has fallen short of its goal of achieving the $2 billion in contracts by the end of 2013. However, initial signs in 2014 are promising.  Many of the ESCOs I work with are reporting a strong flow of federal requests for proposals (RFPs) and, in the first quarter of 2014, over $230 million of federal IDIQ ESPCs had been awarded. By contrast, in all of 2013, only $362 million was awarded.  In addition, the CEO of Ameresco, George Sakellaris, announced in his company’s 2013 fourth quarter earnings call in early March that federal government ESCO activity was high.  Therefore, 2014 is looking strong for the ESCO market and ESG will be in a much better position to address it in the wake of this acquisition.

 

Smart Building Apps Seek Relevance

— March 20, 2014

In a world where software applications are replacing bank tellersconcierges, and even opticians, what’s the impact on the role of building engineers?  As described in Navigant Research’s Commercial Building Automation Systems report, the convergence of information technology and building control networks is yielding vast amounts of data.  Moreover, the wider adoption of open standards and the decentralization of building networks make this data widely available.  Against this backdrop, the appification of building management seems inevitable.

Still, the universe of building management applications appears to be in its infancy.  A quick search of the iTunes App Store revealed several available choices.  Apps are available from developers as large as Siemens and as small as Lorenzo Manera (I don’t know who he is, either).  The low barrier to entry in app development means that new entrants are just as capable of bringing an app to market as veteran industry players.

Most of these apps appear to turn a mobile device into another building-level control panel, providing functionalities such as monitoring and controlling heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting or providing some level of energy management.  With the proliferation of open protocols, these types of apps have become easy to develop.  However, they all seem to be equally unsuccessful; none of the apps identified have received enough overall ratings for an average rating to be displayed.

Worthy or Worthless?

Smartphones and tablets provide a slew of sensors and far greater mobility than laptops.  Successful apps take advantage of these features, whether it’s the ability to play games anywhere or to use the embedded camera to snap a quick Instagram selfie.  Residential building automation provides several compelling ways to leverage the properties of mobile devices: occupancy can be set using geolocation, outside air temperatures can be provided through the Internet, and devices can remotely monitor and control lighting, HVAC, and security.  Moreover, an app can obviate the need for a system console.

Apps for commercial buildings, however, are a different story.  Since they’re built on top of an existing building management system (BMS), they don’t replace any equipment.  They don’t provide any more functionality than the underlying system.  The sensors on the device do not provide any useful input.  Some building management apps may aid in commissioning, but the biggest feature appears to be providing another way to monitor the BMS.  The Facility Prime app from Siemens, for example, is described on iTunes as “an ideal interface for non-facilities employees that may need access to live system data.”  Until building management apps can provide more functionality for commercial buildings, they will remain a cool toy for home automation.

 

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