Greener Buildings and Cities

An ambitious Harvard research center's quiet debut

Architectural technologist Ali Malkawi directs the new green-buildings center.
The center debuts, online.

Given the recurrent campus exchanges on climate change and fossil-fuel divestment, the advent of a major Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC) at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) has been remarkably quiet. Now that its website has debuted, its founding director, Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology, has begun to discuss what he called its “giant task.”

Essentially, he said during a recent interview, the mission involves rethinking the design, construction, and operation of buildings worldwide to enhance their lifelong efficiency—particularly, their use of energy. Operating the built environment (heating, cooling, lighting, and so on) accounts for perhaps 40 percent of world energy use, he said, and construction perhaps another 10 percent—a huge factor in greenhouse-gas emissions, and therefore climate change.

Addressing those issues spans the range of built environments. In developed regions, like the United States and Europe, retrofitting structures and enhancing efficiency loom as large challenges. In developing areas like China and India, where high-speed urbanization will change the living quarters, workplaces, and energy consumption of hundreds of millions of people in the next few decades, the opportunity (and need) to create far more efficient buildings is urgent.

“We haven’t actually changed the way we’ve been building buildings for almost a century,” Malkawi said. Architects and engineers are trained to perceive homes, offices, and stores as boxes to be kept comfortable with mechanical, fuel-burning heat and air-conditioning systems that are built to certain numerical standards (and often not fine-tuned to their human users). Insulation wards off unwanted cold or retains the manmade heating and cooling energy. Essentially, Malkawi asserted, “We’re dissociating ourselves from the outside.”

As an alternative, he posited, “We have to move attention from an engineering way of looking at buildings to a design-centric approach.” Gesturing toward the large windows in his office, on the third floor of Gund Hall, he summarized the routine practice of calculating the heat gain or loss through the glass; installing a heating and cooling unit of the right size underneath; and distributing air to combat condensation. A design approach, he explained, would instead consider a building’s skin as layers. How can the light and heat admitted through window glass, for example, be captured in another layer and efficiently stored for use, perhaps days later?

“It’s looking at temperature and time,” Malkawi said—conceiving of building design, construction, and operation as processes, not one-off decisions on insulating values and the specifications for the mechanical systems to be installed. CGBC will focus on those problems, he said, not on engineering “a better insulation material that is cheaper.”

Doing so certainly involves materials science and engineering research on a basic level (those energy-collection layers and storage, for example). But the “giant task” to which he alluded involves rethinking established design and construction processes, revising specifications-based building codes to emphasize lifetime performance- and outcomes-oriented standards, and retraining inspectors—all across one of the world’s largest industries and the spectrum of human habitations. “That’s the mission,” he said.

The Center’s Scope

In pursuit of that end, CGBC defines itself more broadly than established entities at MIT, Stanford, and elsewhere that focus principally on energy efficiency and engineering discovery (which of course figure importantly in what the Harvard center can accomplish).

The GSD center, as described on its website, “aims to transform the building industry” through its design-informed approach that ties research to “the development of new processes, systems, and products.” Its listing of research faculty is dominated by GSD colleagues, but the advisory board also includes the directors of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard Center for the Environment, and faculty from the Business School, the Kennedy School (the former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, SEAS), and the School of Public Health. And given the economic questions inherent in the center’s brief, Malkawi noted, Ascherman professor of economics Richard Freeman is the center’s founding co-director. As it works to promote “holistic change within the built environment, namely the creation and continued improvement of sustainable, high-performance buildings and cities,” CGBC’s research agenda embraces:

  • building simulation tools and modeling methods (including work with mathematicians, computer scientists, and behavioral scientists);
  • high-performance materials and construction, as alternatives to current, high-consumption construction and demolition—the latter wasting the energy embedded in a structure, the equivalent of several years of operating energy consumption (work engaging SEAS experts);
  • technology adoption and diffusion, through new business models, laws, regulations, and enforcement mechanisms (involving professional-school experts in economic incentives, technology diffusion, law, and government and public policy); and
  • sustainable planning, from individual buildings to community infrastructure (at the heart of GSD’s work).

Efforts to disseminate the center's work will begin with GSD’s executive education offerings and extend to conferences, fellowships, and more.

Two initiatives will highlight CGBC’s approach and scope as it gets under way.

First, it will renovate and retrofit its own offices, a GSD-owned house on Sumner Road, as “House Zero,” aiming for “beyond net-zero energy performance.” (Net-zero certification requires that 100 percent of a building’s annual energy needs be supplied renewably, on-site.) A project manager is being hired, with the design to proceed in the coming academic year. The goal is to engage faculty members in CGBC collaborations, showcase what is possible now, and create a venue that itself can be the focus for longer-term research and application of discoveries. (More broadly, Malkawi observed, the Harvard campus—“the size of a small city”—could be the locus of further research and experiments in efficient retrofitting and new construction.)

Second, the center’s November 7 “Challenge Conference” will bring together thought leaders, industry representatives, and Harvard faculty members to help shape its research agenda for the next decade. Without making an already ambitious mission impossibly broad (the center does not seek to reinvent sound urban transportation planning, for example, Malkawi said, nor tackle problems such as water supply or human health), there are myriad opportunities to define within its chosen initial focus on energy- and efficiency-related questions.


Malkawi, who teaches courses titled “High Performance Buildings and Systems Integration” and “Building Simulation,” came to Harvard recently—and to CGBC’s directorship even more so.

A scholar of building simulation (computationally driven design and performance evaluation), advanced visualization, and energy conservation, he taught at Georgia Institute of Technology from 1991 to 1994 while earning his doctorate there in architectural technology and artificial intelligence. He was then at the University of Michigan, before joining the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in 2001. As professor of architecture, he chaired the graduate group in architecture and in 2006 founded the T. C. Chan Center for Building Simulation and Energy Studies. As director, he oversaw its research, education, and consulting activities in support of “healthier, productive, energy efficient strategies that will lead to high performance buildings and sustain(able) environments”—a smaller, single-discipline precursor to CGBC (and one with greater emphasis on consulting services).

But his decision to move to GSD (his appointment was announced in the spring of 2013 and took effect that July) was unconnected to CGBC, he said, and apparently preceded it entirely. He was attracted to Harvard during an 18-month recruitment, he recalled, by the institution’s strengths generally and especially its international reach (within GSD and elsewhere).

No sooner had he arrived, he said, than he learned that Harvard had prospective donor support for a new center, and he became engaged in outlining an interdisciplinary program on a fast track.

DGBC’s founding funding is only one of three elements in a gift from Evergrande Group, a Chinese developer with nearly $60 billion in assets in residential property, and in commercial, hotel, sports, cultural, and other properties. According to a Harvard press release issued without fanfare last December 2, Evergrande underwrote CGBC; a center for research on immunologic diseases at the Medical School-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and a center for mathematical sciences and applications within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ mathematics department, directed by Shing-Tung Yau, Graustein professor of mathematics; he is active in mathematics education in China, as The New York Times reported.

Although none of these commitments has been quantified, they seem quite significant. Certainly, according to the announcement on the Evergrande website, complete with photos of the signing ceremony with President Drew Faust, Provost Alan Garber, GSD’s dean, the Brigham president, and many others, it was a full-dress occasion. The immunology program, according to Harvard’s news release, is to “help support professorships, faculty, and research and educational activities.” In the FAS mathematics center, “Evergrande will support new professorships, research, and core programming” at the intersection of “mathematics, statistics, physics, and related sciences,” and “train young researchers from all over the world, especially those from China.” Multiple professorships alone denote a major level of support.

As for CGBC, Malkawi indicated that the founding support—an endowment and operation funds—is sufficient to establish the center and assure it sufficient security to conduct pioneering research and disseminate the findings, affecting practice, on a global scale. From inception, he said, CGBC’s research and training, guided by design disciplines, should be among the largest such centers in the world, with a truly global footprint.

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