BioBuild in China: Lessons Learned from PLEA 2018 and Shanghai

A group photo from the PLEA 2018 Conference in the Yasumoto International Academic Park at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

On the airplane now on my way from Hong Kong to Shanghai after an incredible experience at the Passive and Low Energy Architecture (PLEA) 2018 conference. Topics spanned from automated simulation validation with artificial neural networks to surveys on Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) adoption in industry to new techniques to retrofit wooden windows in historic structures from the northern Italian Alps. The diversity of subjects reflected the incredible diversity of the researchers presenting them, and spanned four main categories: Science and Technology, People and Community, Design and Practice, and Education and Training. It took place at the beautiful Yasumoto International Academic Park at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Though my paper focused on hygrothermal simulation tools and the underlying assumptions that have to be understood when utilizing a given tool in a new climate, there were also many papers presented that were relevant to my dissertation research in distributed electrical infrastructure modeled after forest ecosystem dynamics. Dendritic phase change material (PCM) capsules were compared to spherical capsules of the same materials and the resulting increase in surface areas was shown to more than double the beneficial thermal performance. The history of wooden architecture in China was compared to the Taoist assignment of different elements to different parts of the human body, reinforcing once again the quintessential Chinese idea of harmony between man and nature. There were several other projects focused on integrating plants and photovoltaics directly into building facades and measuring different elements of improved performance. One project in particular from Switzerland did an amazing job demonstrating the aesthetic potential of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) and utilized several wood-based materials from their local industry in constructing their prototype. Passive breathing walls using bimetallic materials with different coefficients of thermal expansion were also presented with encouraging results. Lastly, there was a great overview of Project SCENe in Nottingham, UK where a team of researchers has recently set up a virtual power plant and is exploring the behavioral implications of cooperative, community-based energy systems.

Though the content and the collaborative atmosphere of the conference were incredible, the carbon footprint of conferences themselves was a major theme of discussion. I love the diversity of minds at PLEA 2018. I love the international destinations and the international scope of the various papers included in the proceedings. I love listening to the cacophony of languages and accents during coffee breaks. But each researcher that flew from another country to be there was fighting (whether consciously or not) against the whole principle of the conference itself. The plastic cutlery and waxed paper cups from catering did not help the cause, and I noticed a transition towards reusable dishware as the conference wore on. But regardless, it begs the question – are there better ways we can convene in the 21st century to discuss topics of academic interest. Especially when the topic revolves around lowering our collective impact on the environment.

And if we are going to convene in a given place and waste those air-miles to do so, let us make sure that we properly engage the host community and reach out beyond the barrier of academic borders. Another major theme in the conference was how intellectual gatherings can extend their real-world impact. One way is to make sure any workshops organized by the conference are made accessible to all participants regardless of their ability to pay. Ideally, this extends to local community members with interest as well. Of the several affiliated workshops hosted the day before PLEA officially began, none of them were even focused on architectural and planning challenges inherent to Hong Kong. Imbuing a better sense of place in the proceedings would help justify the international footprint of the PLEA conference.

About to land in Shanghai. Kaiwen, another BioBuild fellow and classmate of mine in the BEST Lab at Virginia Tech, is studying drone computer vision and crack identification in building facades. One PLEA paper on automated infrared drone building audits spoke to some insightful lessons that Kaiwen could apply to her research. As we walk around downtown Shanghai we notice the extreme scale of the buildings in the central business district (especially the newly completed Shanghai Tower). It would take ages to monitor and audit their envelope performance (and or identify any cracks in the façade). These drone automation techniques will be more and more important as our buildings get larger and larger. We will also have to find ways to combat the climbing carbon footprints associated with our growing built environments. We were lucky to see a small sliver of blue sky on our first day in Shanghai, but from what I heard it is getting less and less likely with the increasing smog from the combustion of fossil fuels. Luckily we found some nice green walls to help improve the air quality inside and outside of Shanghai buildings. It will not solve the problem, but it is certainly one bio-inclusive way to work with nature instead of against it.