Gesang presented her research at an American Meteorological Society meeting in January 2020.

Wisconsin student’s novel climate research could change building design

Climate action is accelerating, but not all efforts have the same level of impact. A challenge to achieving impactful action is that many climate mitigation projects consider legacy data to inform future work.

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Gesang takes a different approach with her research, which focuses on using climate data to inform building energy design. She examines data projections for the future instead of relying solely on those from the past.

“Buildings have been designed for the past climate because all those building design metrics we have are calculated from historical weather data,” she said in a news release. “What we are thinking is, as the climate is changing, if we use projected climate data to calculate those building design metrics, how different would [the buildings] be? Would our current heating and cooling systems have any problems in the future climate?”

What it means

Gesang found that buildings will need to meet different demands in the future. For example, cooling demand in Madison at the end of this century will be more similar to the current demand in Montgomery, Alabama; and heating demand will be more similar to current Louisville, Kentucky. Therefore, building design should be altered to reflect future needs, optimize performance, and reduce resource use and emissions.

“The implications are enormous,” said Dan Vimont, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “Because not only is it just how you design buildings, but it’s how you design for energy needs in the future.”

Buildings in southern cities primarily use electric heating equipment, such as heat pumps, whereas most of the Midwest uses fossil-derived natural gas. Progress on cold-weather heat pump technology over the past decade has prompted more Midwestern homes to adopt that technology over gas furnaces. But if the Midwest has an even lower heating need in the future, a lot more buildings could effectively convert to electric heat pumps.

Why it’s different

Although Gesang’s idea of using future climate projections might seem obvious, it’s not widely considered in current building design and construction. “It’s really hard to change industry standards,” and it involves complex data modeling and coding, Vimont said.

Similar existing research is geographically narrower, whereas Gesang’s research includes the entire city of Madison with the goal of expanding across the country. Similar research often uses data from only one climate model, but Gesang averages data from 24 models, which her advisor says is novel.

Gesang also works with an interdisciplinary team instead of solely focusing on one climate issue, like air quality. Collaborators specialize in sectors including environmental studies, air quality, environmental policy, and building energy modeling.

“I found that climate change is not only about climate,” Gesang said. “It is a huge, complicated, interdisciplinary topic that involves every aspect of our lives.”

What’s next

The next phase of Gesang’s study will connect building design metrics with changes in energy consumption. She hopes that ultimately could lead to an introduction of best practices that prompts widespread building design changes, greater energy efficiency, and the consumption of fewer natural resources.