Graduate Architecture

Posted September 20, 2020

Q&A: William Braham on Energy, Carbon, and Penn’s Campus

In 2007, Penn President Amy Gutmann became the first Ivy League president to commit to tracking and reducing the university’s carbon emissions as part of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment pledge. Two years later, the University published its first Climate Action Plan in 2009 and the Center for Environmental Building & Design (CEBD) worked closely with the Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC) to develop and test scenarios. By the time the second climate plan was released, in 2014, the CEBD and ESAC had a lot more data to work with, and a clearer picture of how difficult it would be to meet the university’s carbon reduction goals. With the release last October of the third plan, Climate and Sustainability Action (CSAP) Plan 3.0, Penn’s decade-long effort to measure and reduce its carbon footprint has intersected with a newly energized movement to respond to climate change.

Throughout that evolution, William Braham, professor of architecture at the Weitzman School, and director of both the Master of Science in Design with a Concentration in Environmental Building Design program and the CEBD, has been at the center of the University’s thinking on sustainability and energy use. For Climate Week at Penn, Braham spoke with Design Weekly about the university’s carbon goals, energy usage, and the future of the CEBD.

Since the time you started thinking about the first sustainability plans, what have you learned about how the built environment contributes to the University’s carbon footprint and how it can be reduced?

Penn is a campus built over 100 years, and like many universities, a big chunk of the campus was built in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Those buildings were built before there were energy codes, before people put insulation in walls, before they used insulating glass and windows and so forth. In any given year, 85% of Penn’s carbon emissions is because of consumption in the buildings. So, it takes real renovation work to achieve dramatic reductions.

It’s no mystery that the big energy consumers on the campus are laboratories, particularly the chemical and biomedical kinds of research labs that have fume hoods. All that air that they have to pull through fume hoods over experiments and blow it out of the building to keep people safe—every bit of that air has to be replaced by air that’s brought in from outside. It has to be cooled, or heated, or dehumidified, depending on the season. A lot of techniques have been developed over the years to do that much more efficiently than it was done in the ’60s, ’70s, or even ’80s.

The way we do lighting now has changed so much too. For 25 years people were saying LED is we’re going to be the lighting of the future, and it seemed to never happen. And then all of a sudden, the price dropped to a reasonable level. They appeared in Home Depot. Penn has been in a process of going out and doing lighting replacements. They had been doing it before with fluorescents, but now they’re moving to LED. It’s a significant chunk of electricity and it’s relatively easy to do.

Has the emphasis on buildings shifted a little bit more to an understanding of how the Penn community behaves?

From the very beginning, one of the things that was explicitly part of the Carbon Action Plan was behavioral change. On one hand, that sounds like, oh, you need to use recyclable materials, or you need to have a reusable shopping bag. But it really is remarkable how much of an effect it can have. Things like closing your fume hoods and adjusting the temperatures under sub-zero freezers and turning off the lights are obvious things. Air travel is even more bound up with individual decisions. Until six months ago, air travel was a completely different conversation that building efficiency measures, because it was actually seen as a metric of success for an international research university, whose faculty are evaluated by their national and international reputations. That was a puzzle.

But frankly all those conversations changed as of March, because suddenly people discovered they don’t have to travel as much as they thought they did to still be active and to do things. And look, air travel will come back. Whatever things look like in a year or two from now, it will come back. Will it come back the way it did before? Probably not, for a variety of reasons, but it’s still something that requires many more individual decisions.

You serve as chair of the select Faculty Senate Committee on the Institutional Response to the Climate Emergency (CIRCE). Can you talk about what has happened in the beginning stages of that process?

The initial impetus on the part of a number of faculty to start this committee was the release of the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, which coincided with a rising interest in climate change and climate action on the campus. An awful lot of people who hadn’t previously paid attention to climate issues were now looking at CSAP 3.0, more closely and with much more interest than previously. They had a lot of questions. I’ll be honest, that iteration of the Plan didn’t clearly convey how Penn was going to get to climate neutrality by 2042, which had been detailed in earlier versions of the plan. Let me be clear: It is, in fact, a very ambitious plan.

As faculty realized that the University actually was doing some pretty substantial things and was committed to this ambitious goal, the attention turned to other places. We realized that as ambitious as the University was, their scope of action was limited to facilities and administration. The big next place to look to reduce carbon is individual decision, the social norms of the extended community. Penn is a giant community. It is not just the main campus or its operations.

The University takes responsibility for and is now preparing to offset the air travel purchased by faculty and staff in the course of University business, but faculty and staff do a lot of travel on their own, as do students. So CIRCE has developed a faculty resolution to ask faculty to take responsibility for their own actions (please read and sign it!). Similarly, there’s been a big push over the last few years to get the University to divest in fossil fuels. It has taken initial steps, divested in some particularly egregious forms of fossil fuels. But once again, we did some calculations and we realized that faculty and staff combined have retirement funds that are on the same order of magnitude as the University endowment. If the faculty and staff start divesting their funds, they actually can have as much of an effect as getting the University to do it. There’s only so much the institution can do as an institution, and we have to do more as a community, and my experience is that faculty, staff, and students really want to be asked to do help. To support the resolution and individual action CIRCE has also developed a manual in conjunction the with the PPSA and WPPSA, the two Penn staff associations, called Bring it Home: Practical Ways for Penn Faculty and Staff to Respond to the Climate Emergency.

What kind of possibilities does that create, and do you see that interest growing still?

We do see it growing. My colleague in CIRCE, Simon Richter, has organized 45-plus events for Climate Week, and his interest was in how to extend this beyond the people who are normally engaged, beyond the people who always show up at the meetings. People are looking for ways to be engaged, to have their teaching, or their research, or maybe just their personal activism connect to these topics. We have doctors from the Medical School who are extremely concerned and want to change things, even though it may not connect directly to their research. The enthusiasm that has motivated CIRCE was exactly that, people from different disciplines who wanted to find ways to make a difference.

What does the near-term future look like for the Center for Environmental Building & Design and for the carbon action plan?

The carbon action plan typically has had a five-year cycle of interest and attention. That may change. We’re dealing with so many crises at the moment. But, like structural racism, climate really does seem to be a problem that you does not go away. It’s really, really not going away.

With the work for the University, we’ve shifted our focus the last couple of years to getting the right kind of information into the hands of the decision makers who don’t think about energy every week, or maybe they only think about it once a year. But how do we get it into the right place and the right form so that, when people are deciding whether to invest in their buildings or change their practices, they have what they need to make decisions?

We’ve just started another project now, essentially responding to the question people ask all the time, which is, “It’s great that you’re dealing with the buildings, but how much energy am I using?” The students ask this, departments want it, and frankly, at the moment, there’s no way to tell. It took six years to get meters at the building level, and to start placing sub-meters is a whole different kind of effort. What we’re working on right now is in the proof of concept stage, but were putting much less expensive meters either right at the outlet or in the electric panel that then reports over the network so we can tabulate the energy use of an individual dorm room or departmental office. That could really let students change their behavior and compete against other dorm rooms. Of course, the student teams that we’ve talked to want an app so they can literally look at their phone and see how much they’re using. That’s technically possible, but it’ll take a little bit of doing. Right now we’re testing a blockchain infrastructure with the idea of developing a PennCoin for tracking energy and carbon. It is not a form of currency, but a tool for tracking and rewarding changes in behavior within the Penn community. There’s the potential to do a number of different things, depending on how ambitious the University and the community get about looking at this individual scale.

What else are you up to?

We’ve just finished the final a report on something we call the Cool Wall Project, for which we’re going to try to get more funding. We’re working with a colleague in material science, Professor Shu Yang, and we developed a proof of concept of prototype. Basically, it’s a configuration for the outer layer of a building that could cool itself. There are lots of climates like ours which are much more humid at night, and then the air gets drier during the day. This layer would absorb moisture from the air at night — not water, but water vapor. And then during the day it would evaporate it and cool it. It’s like a self-regulated, passively evaporative surface for the wall. We’ve shown that it can reduce the temperature of the outer surface by a couple of degrees centigrade. This has two obvious benefits. One, it can reduce the cooling load of a building, so that’s good. And two, it also reduces the temperature of the immediate surrounding, which can help offset urban heat island effects.