Smita Chandra Thomas is a building science expert who founded Energy Shrink in 2015, a consultancy focused on decarbonization in the built environment that provides technical advice, modeling and analysis, and research. She worked as a licensed architect for two years and, for the last 23 years, has been a building science consultant during a period when “green” has been redefined increasingly through technology as well as the environment. She says that architects have a much larger influence on building energy performance than many realize, a role often left to mechanical engineers. And that it’s imperative for architects to learn the basics and decarbonize their practices even if the building industry is slow to evolve. “If you take just one day to immerse yourself in some fundamental ideas about building science,” says Thomas, “you can learn enough to ask the right questions at the right time.”
What do you do, and why do you do it?
I focus, through my consultancy Energy Shrink, on decarbonizing buildings. We work at both the individual building level, as well as at the program and policy levels. We can work at the 30,000 feet level, so to speak, and we can work at the insulation and window level as well.
I’m a building scientist at heart and I’m always trying to find ways to decarbonize the building sector at scale — that’s my north star. I believe in quantification — what I found difficult as an architect was that people often spoke in very conceptual ways. If you’re making a green building, I want to know how green it is, in numbers — how many kWh or pounds of carbon is it reducing? So, what I do now is help people model buildings to make informed choices.
As an example, we worked on a New York City School pilot to convert a 100-year-old historic brick school to a net-zero building. We did a thermal analysis for them to have Passive House levels of thermal comfort and eliminate the moisture risk while also achieving this ambitious energy goal. The value there is in saving on long-term maintenance, so you’re not going to have to go back to deal with expensive moisture issues later.
What do you think about decarbonization’s uptake, in terms of representing a goal and a movement at the same time?
Decarbonization is an eyebrow term that everyone should use, but it’s not the only one. There’s finance, there’s the creative force behind design, and there are other frameworks, but today I see a lot of these things merging. Developers want to develop buildings that investors want to invest in, and the emerging ESG ratings are pulling both toward decarbonization. So, there’s a natural market force there, which is great.
How does this connect, or nearly connect, with your architectural training?
In my first year of architecture school, I discovered I had a passion for how traditional buildings were built for the climate. I grew up in the cool mountains in the north of India and went to college in the hot and humid south of India — those are two very different climates with two different kinds of architecture that worked well for those climates. After graduating and working for a couple of years in India, I was disappointed, though, with the choices we were making in contemporary architecture. Most people were building what they perceived as modern buildings using a modern language of architecture, which made no sense for the locations or climates. I searched for a course in ‘climate-responsive design’ in the U.S. — and I had no idea whether such a course even existed. I started my master’s at UCLA for a year, and then moved to Berkeley for two years where there were a lot of courses available about building science — courses integral to the architecture school, which was wonderful. With my background in architecture along with math and science, I focused on energy modeling, climate analysis, materials science, building façade, and lighting design — aspects that influence architectural design. Even though our work is highly quantitative, my design background helps me work with architects to refine early design concepts such as orientation, massing, and window areas, and consult on the building fabric during design development — which are key to building energy performance.
Broadly, what are the biggest challenges to decarbonization?
In terms of challenges to decarbonization, what I find most challenging is the mass media perception of what a green building is. To me, until people really understand what makes a building green, they’re going to ask for the wrong things and they’ll be okay with the wrong solutions. The most glaring example of this is the building envelope, which is routinely designed with glass and metal, which is the wrong choice for most climates. People look at architecture magazines and blogs, where there’s the constant glamorization of these shiny glass and steel buildings — it’s considered modern and beautiful. You see pictures of people walking around lobbies and offices who look happy because of the ample daylight, but the thing is you don’t need all that glass to create adequate daylighting. The media plays an important role in propagating these ideas. I think the media must work harder to portray the right solutions suitable for different climates.
How do you bridge that gap between what I hear my client wants and what I think might be a better solution?
It’s a slow process — to change an industry. I realized this problem with using too much glass when I was working at a firm in New York, and I was serving as an envelope consultant for the New York Times headquarters. There was another team working on the LEED application, and they said to me, “Why does this building have low energy points? What can be done?” and I said, “Nothing, because it’s all glass.” The architect was trying to do the right thing, he was asking me about the right size for the frit — dots on the glass to reflect sunlight. But once that decision to build a glass box is made, the size of the frit will only change the performance by 0.01%. It doesn’t matter. Now, with the new benchmarking laws in New York City, the building has a C rating, which speaks for itself.
Here’s an analogy I like — if you’re designing a shoe, you have to think about two things — it has to be comfortable and it has to look good. It’s amazing how many shoe designers can’t get those two things right. In architecture, you’re looking at 100 different things — comfort and style, sure, but people have to live there, too. Architecture is multidimensional and it’s hard to be really good at everything. If you’re building a passive home, if someone like me can come in early, at the concept design stage, it ends up making a major difference. You’re going to need certain elements like a certain thickness of walls, an ERV and a heat pump and there are internal space requirements you have to accommodate. As a person who has come through the architecture field, I can feel the pain of architects who want to do one thing and are told they have to do it this other way, but what we do is not design. We just provide another set of constraints to what is already a complex process, it’s still a creative process to design for it. And what fun is design without a challenge?
If I’m in charge of a small firm with fewer than five or six people and I want to evaluate how I can decarbonize my practice, what do I need to be thinking about?
A small architecture business is going to find it hard to create a dedicated research and design team, so the most efficient thing to do is find a consultant, anticipate the costs of an energy modeling process, and build that cost into the project. In a smaller firm, you’re independent in a sense and you can make a difference — often at a smaller scale, though, than what is possible at bigger firms. But, I believe you can find ways to amplify your voice and you’ll find clients who are receptive to it because I really believe most people want to do the right thing.
It takes time and dedication to decarbonize your work, but the good news is that building science is not rocket science. If you take one day and read the right things, you can learn enough to ask the right questions at the right time. This course I created for George Washington University, for instance, can be completed in a day over eight hours. It’s part of the AERC—their Advanced Energy Resilience Certificate — offered by the EEMI (Energy and Environment Management Institute) and it’s for professionals trying to connect the dots from building kWh to climate change. Another course I developed with a colleague at the World Bank , free at the moment, is called “Designing for Greater Efficiency” — it’s specially created for design professionals, it’s highly visual and interactive. I also have a webinar on the USGBC Education website on ‘Demystifying energy modeling for Architects’ that some might find helpful. What I tell people is that they’re probably already doing 90% of what they need to do to get started with decarbonizing their work, and that extra 10% is about reframing their work and getting the data together to make a difference.
William Richards is a writer based in Washington, DC, and co-founder of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy. His latest book, Bamboo Contemporary, published by Princeton Architectural Press, is out this month.