by Nick Gibson ’22

In the ongoing fight against climate change, Washington State University is addressing one of the largest, and largely unknown, climate offenders: buildings.

Residential and commercial buildings accounted for nearly 40 percent of energy usage and 36 percent of carbon emissions nationwide in 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration. In Washington state, residential buildings account for nearly a quarter of all energy usage.

In 2018, Washington state legislators passed one of the strictest energy codes in the nation, as part of the state’s larger effort to reduce energy consumption by 70 percent by the year 2030.

Ryan Smith, director of the School of Design and Construction at WSU, says it will take a combination of fresh ideas and proper training for those in the industry to meet that goal.

Ryan Smith
Photo credit: Jacob Jones for The Pacific Northwest Inlander

“We have a pent-up demand for affordable housing in this country, and we have an unprecedented rate of homelessness. I believe as an architect and as an academic, that shelter should be a fundamental human right,” Smith says. “So the only way that we can deliver affordable housing over the long term is to ensure that that home is first built affordably and then can operate affordably.

“Climate change is real⁠—if we can’t find ways to build and operate our homes and apartments more efficiently, we will run out of resources and it will cause a future that we can’t come back from,” he says.

Smith says WSU is taking a multifaceted approach to prepare students to address the intersecting housing and climate crises. The Integrated Design and Construction Lab (IDCL) recently entered a long-term partnership with Palouse Habitat for Humanity to build and study affordable, energy-efficient housing.

The school is also developing a curriculum focused on energy efficiency training for both students and professionals, thanks to a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy.

Omar Al-Hassawi, assistant professor in the School of Design and Construction, is leading the team establishing the curriculum. Starting in 2023, WSU will offer undergraduate, graduate, and professional certificates, followed in 2024 by a new master’s degree.

“The Department of Energy identified competency gaps that we need to fulfill,” Al-Hassawi says. “The main areas we’re covering are energy modeling and performance of buildings during the design phase, mechanical system design, codes and standards at the state level and national level, user behavior in the built environment, and envelope design and construction.”

Headshot of Omar Al-Hassawi
Omar Al-Hassawi

Al-Hassawi says the undergraduate and graduate level courses will be offered primarily online with some in-person components. The professional certification will be overseen by the WSU Energy Office in Olympia.

“We’ve assembled a team from WSU faculty and our energy program to help us develop the content,” Al-Hassawi says. “We’ve also established a technical advisory committee composed of national and some international members. So, we’re getting a lot of diverse, really good feedback from professionals and faculty members from different backgrounds to help refine this curriculum.”

Al-Hassawi says students will be prepared for a variety of situations, such as retrofitting versus new construction, and multi-family housing versus single-family housing. Students and professionals will need to take a specialized approach for each building.

The effort to make homes more energy efficient and high performing starts in the planning and development phase but finishes with those who actually use the building and its energy efficient features. Julia Day, assistant professor and IDCL director, has examined user behavior in the built environment.

WSU building exterior.

“A lot of the research we’ve done is based on that principle of not only making sure that people understand how to use the building, but on the flip side of that, that designers understand how the people will use the building,” Day says.

Day and the IDCL are developing a tenant engagement program for the WSU Pullman campus. She says they worked with Facilities Services to identify three of the most energy intensive buildings on campus and are putting together educational materials and training for the occupants.

Day is also creating a course for undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals focused on human behavior, occupant comfort, building interfaces, and different ways to engage tenants.

“The students who are going to graduate at this time are going to be responsible for all the big decisions in the coming 25 to 50 years,” Al-Hassawi says. “Buildings they’re going to design are going to last and go well into the predictions of rising global temperatures, so they really need to have that knowledge.”

Nick Gibson is a senior in the Murrow College and editor of the Daily Evergreen.

…advances building energy efficiencies through the development and delivery of tenant engagement programs, as well as post-occupancy evaluation research. IDCL is supported by Washington State University, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, and Betterbricks.