Logo: University of Southern California

New Sensors and Tools to Track the Multiple Personalities of Buildings

A Viterbi research project will use the USC campus as a testbed to create new ways so save energy
Robert Bradford
November 09, 2011 —

Buildings have lives—they are active, and they sleep. They have different personalities and different attractions for their occupants. 

Burcin Becerik-Gerber
Burcin Becerik-Gerber (Brian Morri photo)
How can one specifically define the life of a building and use that data to optimize efficiency? Burcin Becerik-Gerber, an assistant professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC Viterbi, is focusing on this question, and the results of her research will lead to significant energy savings and new ways to take advantage of the changing dynamics of buildings.

“We work with different sensors and tools to gather data about a given building and fuse that data to create knowledge,” said Becerik-Gerber. Her research often challenges traditional notions about building use and the objective and subjective views of the occupants of buildings.

Placing sensors in buildings across USC as part of a broad research effort, her team can get a sense of occupancy rates in specific areas of a building and during specific times of the day. “We work with multiple sensors to determine where people are in the building and what their preferences are for temperature, lighting and airflow. The number of people, their preferences, their activities and their energy related behavior affect building energy use. It’s a complex optimization problem, ” said Becerik-Gerber. These data points are essential for determining when to heat or cool a specific area of a building and at what time of day.

Becerik-Gerber and her team are looking, for example at occupancy rates at different times of day, during both academic semesters and through the seasons. They are finding that while it assumed that people may use offices until 6 p.m., the reality is that employees may leave a room or building well before then. By establishing defined patterns of occupancy, the research team will be able to determine new schemes for heating and cooling that will translate into significant energy savings across campus.  

“We could see savings of 20 to 30 percent over the course of a year,” she said.

In addition to gathering objective data about how people actually use buildings, Becerik-Gerber is also focusing on obtaining subjective data through crowd sourcing—using cell phone interaction to gauge opinions about buildings.  

“We recruited students and asked them to send us information about perceptions on heating and cooling in specific rooms. All of the rooms they sent information from had a temperature between 70 and 75 degrees,” she said. “Yet the majority of the occupants in the room said they were cold. That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out,” she said. “What is the right temperature to make a room comfortable? Factors of gender and age enter into that equation, and we’re working on solutions.” 

One of the keys to the research project, which will continue for the next three years, is that the data gathered will lead to increased efficiency without the costly need to create new buildings or renovate existing structures, according to Becerik-Gerber.

The research team will share the information gathered through crowd sourcing and other building energy related information with the campus users in a 3D environment. “The whole goal is creating an energy-efficient community at USC,” she said.If we are to make a significant change toward energy efficient buildings, it will be important to develop an ‘energy literate’ citizenry by making building occupants aware of their energy consumption and providing ways they can change their behavior to achieve greater energy efficiency.”