Better Living through Green Technology
By Robin Hegg
What will the houses of the future look like? If the Earth gets a say in it, they’ll look a lot like what engineers are working on today—sustainably built, sometimes self-reliant ecosystems that make the smallest environmental impact possible. While breakthroughs in green technology can impact the environment in all areas of life, looking at how we design, build, and run our homes and other buildings can make a major impact on the health of the environment. It has been estimated that current buildings are responsible for 40% of the world’s total energy consumption and for 24% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Engineers around the world have a hand in the future of the environment through the development of green technology, greener and more sustainable materials, and new methods of energy production. With greener technology being developed constantly, the house of the future is looking much more Earth friendly.
The process of green building begins with clever design. Calculating something as simple as where to place the windows can make a major difference in energy usage. Strategically placed windows can mean fewer hours using electric lighting and less need for heating in the winter. Shading of windows and roofs in the summer can mean less energy use and less pollution from air conditioning. The same can be true of the placement of insulation in walls, ceilings, and floors.
Technology that makes small adjustments to a homeowner’s energy consumption can make a major difference as well. Connecting lights to photo sensors, so they only come on when someone is in the room, can help to conserve energy. Thermostats that can be programmed and can work on timers can mean heat and air conditioning aren’t being used when no one’s home or when they simply aren’t necessary. Similarly, water heaters that can be programmed and work on timers can allow water to only be heated when it will be used, rather than heating it constantly, even when nobody’s home.
Green energy production technology built by engineers mean that homes and other buildings can also be designed to produce their own energy through the use of alternative energy systems like wind turbines and solar panels (photovoltaic systems). These devices are able to convert natural energy sources, like wind or sunlight, into electricity that can be funneled straight to the building’s electrical grid. In fact, some buildings are designed to be so energy efficiency that they actually produce more energy than they use. These buildings don’t need to rely on power plants, which saves the owner money on electrical bills, doesn’t use limited and polluting fossil fuels, and keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Materials engineers have a huge role to play in green building. Developing building materials that are recycled or sustainable, durable, and still cost-effective and appealing to homeowners, mean more people will choose to use them. Engineers are also able to think about how a material will be reused or disposed of, when it’s no longer needed, and can work toward developing materials that won’t leave a negative environmental impact after its use. Discovering ways to build more energy efficient household elements can make a major difference in energy efficiency and pollution. More efficient insulation, insulating windows, and energy-efficient appliances can all make a big positive impact on the environment.
Computer engineers and software developers have a role to play in green building as well. Home energy consumption monitors can make homeowners more aware of their energy and water usage and more likely to conserve these resources. Software has also been designed to help builders find the right green materials for their projects. Software like the ATHENA ® EcoCalculator for Assemblies and BEES ® Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability allow builders to test out different combinations of materials and look at both environmental and economic factors to help them decide what materials will be right for them.
The environmental concepts that go into green building can be applied to all facets of life and engineering. Developing new technology that assists people and businesses in making more environmentally responsible choices, engineering new materials that will have less of an environmental impact and can help conserve energy, and thinking of unique ways to change our current systems of living and working to make them greener will all have a major impact on the health of our environment.