Architectural engineer on mission to enable zero-carbon buildings


By Mariah Chuprinski

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Greg Pavlak’s ultimate goal as an architectural engineer is to develop high-performing and environmentally sustainable solutions for buildings. It requires a two-prong focus on innovative building design and controls — applied to both new construction and the retrofit of existing buildings.

An assistant professor in the Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering, Pavlak and his research group focus on how design and control optimization can benefit buildings and the environment in one cohesive process, known as control co-design, or simply, co-design.

“There is a big push to make buildings more flexible with dynamic energy systems, which can respond to grid conditions in real time,” he said. “Those types of controls can best be achieved if they are inherently considered early in the building design process. The relationship between building design and intelligent environmental controls is interdependent and, hence, critical for achieving dramatic improvements in building performance.”

Co-design is already in use in other industries, such as the aerospace and automotive fields, Pavlak said.

“Wind turbines, for example, have been designed and optimized using co-design,” he said. “But co-design has not yet become mainstream in the building industry with its complex design and controls challenges.”

Creating zero-carbon buildings requires both energy efficiency and energy flexibility, Pavlak said. Increased efficiency results in less energy use overall, while increased flexibility allows buildings to use energy when it is available from cleaner, renewable sources.

Not all electricity is the same, explained Pavlak. There are times of the day when more electricity is produced by coal and gas, and there are other times when more electricity is produced by clean sources like wind and solar.

“By developing intelligent carbon-aware controllers for buildings, we can help buildings use more energy when it is cleaner,” Pavlak said. “This can lead to a substantial reduction in the carbon emissions associated with building operations.”

The issue is that many buildings are designed with first costs, such as construction materials, in mind, not long-term expense and sustainability, according to Pavlak. The key to overcoming this challenge, he said, is co-design.

“Co-design allows building efficiency and flexibility to be analyzed at the same time,” Pavlak said. “This provides an opportunity to discover new combinations of solutions that can reduce energy, carbon emissions and costs.”

Preliminary work by Pavlak and his collaborators and students in architectural engineering was published in Applied Energy earlier this year. The work highlights how co-design can lead to building microgrid systems with batteries that are 26% smaller than those used in conventional designs.

“Batteries can be one of the most expensive components in these systems,” Pavlak said. “By improving the controls of the buildings, the optimizer found a solution with both better performance and much lower costs. These savings could not have been quantified without co-design.”

Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and head of the Department of Architectural Engineering, noted that co-design is a concept that has a lot to give in the coming years.

“Buildings are the largest consumers of electricity with significant operational costs and associated carbon emissions,” she said. “Sustainable co-design concepts Professor Pavlak is advancing have great potential to increase building energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of the building and construction industries.”


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Megan Lakatos

headshot of a man wearing glasses and a coat and tie

Greg Pavlak, assistant professor of architectural engineering, pursues innovative building design and environmental control methods to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and building systems. IMAGE: PENN STATE COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING