Like almost any academic these days (at least within Europe or North America), I am writing this post from my home “office”, which constitutes an Ikea table propped up in my living room, the last free floor space in the house where I can find good daylight (the image currently attached with this post is not mine -it’s temporary).
January 2021 finds us right smack in the middle of – hopefully – the final (horrendous) wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in those countries fortunate to have acquired supplies of vaccines. Though in Vancouver, and BC in general, we’ve managed to escape some of the worst outcomes of this pandemic, around us the stories are grim. Some of our sister provinces in Canada have re-entered lockdown-like conditions. Europe is on the precipice of returning to forms of national lockdowns where day-to-day conditions will really fit the word. Meanwhile, the US is continuing to break case count and death records on a near daily-basis. There’s an election today in Georgia. It’s meant to be important and I’m sure it is. Unfortunately, I’m stuck thinking about the fact that Georgia is today one of the worst-affected US states with daily COVID-19 cases, yet the bowling lanes are still open. Should I feel worried that this is a sign of the unconscionable blasé attitude that some of the richest countries of the world took to this virus, or is it a sign that you’re not likely to find more than a few people at a bowling alley in Georgia anyway?
I suppose for scientists, 2020 may turn out to be a year that had “giveth” as much as it had “taketh away”. Never before in history had humankind worked together to develop, test, approve, and begin distributing a vaccine for a novel virus within a 10-month timeframe. Never in modern history had we also seen physical and health science so contested politically in some of the most important economies of the World. In the US, where this data is easy to come by, a poll in December found that registered Republicans are 4x more likely to state they would never seek getting vaccinated against COVID-19. What happens to a society when objective science is interpreted differently by two halves of a country?
I don’t want to exaggerate, but throughout my career I’ve seen the paralysis that comes from this division. For nearly 15 years, I’ve worked in the area of building energy systems research, specifically the design, analysis, and operation of building systems that seek significant reductions in carbon emissions. It’s a field where the messy politics of climate change, and society’s view of climate change, has played front and center. It’s a field that, maybe unexpectedly, I’m becoming even more passionate about after 2020 – though the year certainly brought on a need for a change.
When I joined UBC in 2017, like some academics I fretted over what I would call my research team. I arrived as an institutional mutt: an engineer-by-education, mentored and supervised by architects and economists, now working somewhere in the “middle” of all of that. Not knowing what kind of projects and graduate students I would attract, in terms of a name, I settled on a safe choice: the Energy, Technology, and Architecture (or ETA) Lab. The widest umbrella possible.
I’ve reflected on this three years later, realising that the “ETA Lab’s” true heart and focus was all along around a single keyword that has threaded itself throughout my various research projects over the last decade and a half: decision-making.
‘Back in the day’, my PhD thesis sought to find new ways of producing and representing building performance simulation with a focused lens on how we, imperfect human beings, make decisions based on the data presented to us. In that particular case, it was about building design decisions that balance energy efficiency, carbon, and economic risk. Like some other academics in the field, I sought to be explicit about projecting the uncertainty of our forecasts, and that through illustrating uncertainty, we can be better judges of our own confidence in the data we create via simulation. Inadvertently, and in their own way, members of my research team today reflect these very same interests: Novel uses of Bayesian statistics for understanding thermal comfort; expert elicitation-based analysis of building retrofits; novel applications of machine learning for improving building controls and performance forecasts; new physics models to help designers facilitate emerging space cooling technologies; the effect of a building’s overall design on one’s individual productivity.
In the post-COVID world, we need better-trained practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers who have expertise and experience in more than one discipline. We need more of these individuals to have a high degree of data literacy and competency with modern concepts of risk, uncertainty, and decision-making. In the coming years, we will be forced to make difficult compromises with regards to simultaneously improving building occupant well-being and achieving climate change mitigation and adaptation goals. Perhaps it helps to remind ourselves of the importance of identifying clear ideas and recommending decisions that are robust to our worst-case scenarios.
That’s all to say that, the “Energy, Technology, and Architecture (ETA Lab)” was a good name, but I have to be honest that the ‘umbrella’ was never really a good fit for my personal and professional tastes – and it seems that of my group as well. So, as of 2021, welcome to the Building Decisions Research Group at UBC.
New name, same team. Stay tuned for more.
Dr. Adam Rysanek