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April 19, 2017

Dong Zhao: Saving energy in homes

April 19, 2017

Dong Zhao is an assistant professor of construction management in the School of Planning, Design and Construction. He specializes in energy efficiency and risk mitigation in the built environment systems.

As an engineer or a “tech geek,” my early research focused on technological improvement to reach energy efficiency. I applied many approaches in construction engineering, building science, geographic information systems and building information modeling. For example, my collaborators and I analyzed national housing data and developed a conceptual framework of resilient built environment.

Using that framework, we found that a little more than half of the United States has adopted building codes with a satisfactory capability to deal with threats from natural hazards. Ascribed to that work, we are fortunate to receive the best journal article award of the year from the Journal of Architectural Engineering by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“Dr. Zhao, your research was exciting. But, can you tell us what we can do to reduce energy use?” asked my neighbors when I was introducing myself. Without thinking, I was going to say, “By upgrading your home and choosing a high-level Energy Star air conditioning system, etc.” But, I did not. Instead, I thought about how my research has helped improve building construction technology and informed the policy makers, but is it possible for us to improve our communities and help residents like my neighbors save energy?

After that conversation, my research emphasis changed slightly to focus on the human factor in building systems. Green building technology has had a significant improvement in recent decades, while the energy use remains the same. Why?

Our recent research identifies the interaction between the effects of building technology and resident behavior on energy consumption in residential buildings. Specifically, technology advances contribute approximately 40 percent to home energy efficiency. That means the full potential of green building technologies relies on an occupant’s appropriate behaviors, yet it has not been reached. This finding helps residents to adjust daily behaviors — for example, the thermostat settings — to reduce energy use and save them money.

After the publication release, I received a letter from a college student in Atlanta. “Dr. Zhao, I heard your discussion on a Sunday AM radio news review show about a study that you've recently completed regarding the efficiency of residential energy use,” the student wrote. “It was a very interesting discussion.” I was very glad to receive this letter, because to me it meant that our effort had begun to attract the attention of our society, especially the younger generation.

We are approaching the answer to my neighbor’s question, although have not reached it yet. This provides me confidence to continue to seek the system connections between technology and behavior, which will ultimately benefit our community in energy efficiency and lead to more positive social and economic impacts.