Integrating Sustainable Energy Into Building Design

By Scott Prangley

photo of Thomas DavisThomas Davis (right) is the principal investigator of a new faculty-student applied research project called UHEAT: Utilization of Harvested Energy through Active Transfer.

"Every day there is energy delivered to our front door free of charge, it's called sunlight," explains Davis. He believes that a building can be designed and built that generates all of its own energy, including heating/cooling, and all other consumer needs.

Davis is a civil engineer, and professor of Sustainable Design in the School of Building Technology at Fanshawe College. His research stems from a long history of passion for the environment and more than 30 years of experience in the field of civil engineering. Davis started his own environmental engineering firm, based out of Toronto, in 1994. His background includes high rise condos, office towers, and development of his own farm, which has been off the power grid for 12 years. His love of the environment and his background in civil engineering officially merged when he took a position at Fanshawe College in 2008.

"My hypothesis is that a grid is redundant, we don't need one, we should generate the power where we use it - (at) our houses," says Davis.

"The buildings that we live in and occupy use 40% of the world's energy. My focus is on harvesting energy using the buildings themselves as energy collectors. Smart meters basically spin both ways; you get credit for power you feed to the grid and get charged for power you take off the grid."

Sheds intended for use in the UHEAT project are being constructed at an off-campus facility owned by the College. Applied research will take place at that location. The UHEAT project will provide hands-on learning experiences for students, who will apply sustainable design principles being taught in the classroom.

Diagram of UHEAT shed design - click for larger version
Diagram of UHEAD shed design - click for larger version.

The first phase of the project focuses on taking multiple products already available, such as solar panels, and installing them on the sheds to prove that buildings can be entirely energy self-sufficient. The second phase will examine how to integrate this technology into the building design so that, visually, it is camouflaged.

Davis hopes that one day the research could lead to a "plug and play" technology that allows for the integration of all renewable energy sources like photovoltaic (solar) panels, geothermal, and wind turbines.

"Ultimately the goal is to incorporate the technology into the building surfaces so that the building itself is an energy collector. Not only [would it collect] solar photovoltaic energy, but also the heat that is transferred via infra-red to the planet. This system would have the capacity to absorb the heat and store it for later use to warm our buildings. The same will go for cold too, using that to condition the air in our buildings," explains Davis.

UHEAT is still in the early stages of research, but as technology is improving so is the need for viable renewable energy. This applied research project allows students to see how a new idea is developed and researched, and to explore different job opportunities available in the field of construction. Not only does this applied research help the environment and save energy, but it also has the potential to save a lot of money, Davis says.

Fanshawe students have already had some experience in sustainable buildings. In the summer of 2011, Davis and some students participated in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon with Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. This international competition, held every two years, has contests in 10 categories (engineering, architecture, affordability and so on) and challenges college and university teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive."(We) designed and built a house in New Zealand and then shipped it to Washington, D.C. and built it on the National Mall. That house produced more power when it sat at the National Mall than it consumed, and that included its construction. We were able to build a house and operate it, and the whole time it fed energy into the grid, rather than the other way around," says Davis.

The combined Canadian-New Zealand team took first place in the engineering category, and finished in third place overall just behind the University of Maryland and Purdue University and ahead of other university and technical institute teams from China, Belgium, Canada and the U.S.

Scott Prangley is a student in Fanshawe's Bachelor of Applied Technology - Biotechnology applied degree program. The article was prepared as a result of his participation in the Research and Technical Writing Course (COMM7005), taught by Dr. Carol Hannam.