Why do people demand the latest technology in devices like smartphones and computers –  but settle for suboptimal design in buildings?  

Some studies have shown that we spend more than 80 percent of our lives indoors, meaning the built environment can significantly impact everything from health and relationships to productivity levels and personal finance. Should we demand more from our physical surroundings?  

Philip Agee, a new assistant professor jointly appointed in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction (MLSoC) and the Virginia Center for Housing Research (VCHR), thinks so. Agee studies human factors in construction and the relationship between people and the built environment. He believes we tolerate buildings that aren’t comfortable because that’s what we’re used to.  

“Would you ever go back to a flip phone?” Agee asked. “Probably not, yet we don’t mind being in uninsulated, un-airsealed buildings that are definitely uncomfortable and inefficient. The technology industry carefully tests and develops its products, but some architecture, engineering, and construction designs still come from a time before the Industrial Revolution.”

Agee wants to change that, and he hopes his students will, too. MLSoC prioritizes energy literacy for students enrolled in its building construction and construction engineering management programs by partnering with like-minded organizations – both on and off campus.

To facilitate student interest and education on human-centric construction, Agee collaborates with Community Housing Partners (CHP), a prominent Christiansburg organization that welcomes and provides classes for Virginia Tech students to learn about sustainable and affordable housing.  

CHP is one of the largest local nonprofits to provide energy efficiency services through their Weatherization Assistance Program. The organization partners with MLSoC to provide Friday and Saturday seminars where students receive day-long, hands-on classes to learn about and get certified in topics like weatherization.  

Although COVID-19 will likely prevent the class from running this fall, both organizations are hopeful the weatherization seminars will restart next spring.

Weatherization makes use of a specific tool called the blower door, which can be implemented in order to find out how air tight a building or home is – or more likely, how much air is leaking in or out.

Students learn about Weatherization and the blower door from Assistant professor Philip Agee.
In this February 2020 photo, Assistant Professor Philip Agee (right) introduces students to weatherization with the help of the blower door to explain the importance of energy literacy, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

To find air leaks in a building, blower door equipment is mounted in the frame of an exterior door, and then all entryways, windows, and vents to the building are sealed. The blower door’s fan pulls in air from outside to depressurize the building, and the higher outside air pressure flows in through unsealed cracks and openings. A Pascal measuring tool called a manometer reads the pressure, and through calculations, the building’s air pressure can be pinpointed exactly.

After the blower door finds the building’s air leaks, the process of weatherizing addresses and fixes those leaks.  

CHP knows its weatherization program – which has been shown to reduce a building’s energy burden by 25 percent – decreases power bills and provides well-insulated, more durable, and healthier homes.  

“Without testing, there’s a lot of uncertainty, but we have the technology and equipment to accurately test the efficiency of buildings now,” said Agee. “And it’s not even expensive. Integrating these standards into the building code makes a lot of sense.”

In addition to partnering on the weatherization program, Agee is also interested in working with CHP to explore how COVID-19 can push the two organizations to identify creative ways to collaborate on additional initiatives. For example, Agee said his team has begun to remotely analyze energy use data from one of CHP's zero energy housing projects, and they're also developing data sharing protocols to leverage machine learning approaches to CHP organizational data. "We're hoping these types of innovative methods, which we've been encouraged to explore in order to reduce face-to-face contact, will better inform future interventions for occupant health, housing affordability, and energy use," said Agee.

Similar to the Friday and Saturday seminars, MLSoC is launching new courses where students can take advantage of other CHP training opportunities. Students will access these resources through MLSoC’s new residential degree track, where they enroll in advanced housing and high performance housing courses.

“Students will go work with CHP, where they’ll get 45 contact hours over the course of the semester,” said Andrew McCoy, the Yvan J. Beliveau professor in the Department of Building Construction. “It’s exciting that we can partner with this organization and students can go through their training. With education, we think we can really affect energy literacy and how people understand energy usage.”  

MLSoC also advances energy literacy as well as conversations about sustainability through the Virginia Center for Housing Research, for which McCoy serves as director. Through the center, he and other Virginia Tech faculty have been able to research, educate others, and implement ideas with far-reaching implications.  

“One thing I hope people learn about green buildings is that the positive effects outweigh any negative aspects,” said Dwayne Jefferson, a civil engineering master’s student and New Horizon Graduate Scholar in the College of Engineering. “Green buildings’ construction and maintenance costs are worth the benefits of the buildings’ energy and efficiency savings.”

While adding more regulation to builders’ already busy schedules and tight budgets might not sound especially appealing to the industry, researchers assert that incorporating sustainability into the building code will ultimately increase all-around performance measures.  

“If you look at other industries, they’re used to having standards and tests. Just look at every car manufacturer that has to comply with emission standards,” said Agee. “Human centric-designs are a focus in other areas of research and development. Why not where we spend the majority of our time?”

– Written by Colie Touzel