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Aug. 10, 2021

Dong Zhao: Building more sustainable communities

Each year, the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, awards grants to “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” The following story is part of a series highlighting Michigan State University’s recipients of NSF’s 2021 CAREER grant awards.

This Spartan construction engineer is designing ways to retrofit old buildings for large-scale energy efficiency by integrating human behaviors 

What if you could not only develop new, energy-efficient buildings, but also retrofit old buildings to make entire communities more energy efficient? That is Michigan State University researcher Dong Zhao’s goal.

“Humans spend 90% of time in buildings and thus buildings consume 40% of energy in the U.S.,” says Zhao, an assistant professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction. “Large-scale retrofits of existing buildings can reduce energy use by 60% to 80% and carbon emissions by 30%.”

Current energy retrofit tools focus on a single building at a time. Zhao explains his research fills a gap by integrating occupant behaviors into building engineering on a large scale.

“The human-building integration considers occupants, technologies and environments in the creation of energy retrofit solutions,” Zhao says. “Large-scale retrofits can renew the U.S. built environment and infrastructure since 44% of existing buildings are expected to be replaced or renovated by 2050.”

With the support of a 2021 National Science Foundation Career award, Zhao and his team’s research will transform the large-scale adoption of smart retrofitting strategies. This will also advance the frontier of green and smart cities and place a broader impact to our society toward a more sustainable home.

Zhao sees a future opportunity for intelligent energy infrastructure that uses AI and big data analytical tools as components of smart buildings and cities for more sustainable homes.

“My research focus is instinctively inspired by a sense of responsibility to protect the environment and make a sustainable world,” Zhao says. “The emerging trend of climate change motivates me to input efforts to the design, engineering and renovation of green buildings.”

Zhao’s award also includes a holistic education program designed to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers with leading-edge knowledge, skills and abilities in green technologies and green philosophy.

With his focus on building a green future, it is not surprising Zhao chose MSU to do his research. “MSU has a long legacy and commitment to the research of sustainability,” Zhao says. “This aligns well with my research focus and provides a solid foundation upon which I can continue to build. Go green!”



By: Emilie Lorditch and Deon Foster