Building in a Changing Climate: A Q&A With NIST’s Joannie Chin

Joannie Chin poses in the lab wearing safety goggles, with her arms crossed.

The vast majority of buildings we live, work and relax in have, in one way or another, caused greenhouse gases to enter our atmosphere, contributing to increasingly extreme weather that many buildings were not designed to withstand. But according to Joannie Chin, director of NIST’s Engineering Laboratory, a better understanding of the intensifying threats, building science and human behavior could help us mitigate and shield ourselves from some of the effects of climate change.

NIST public affairs specialist Jonathan Griffin spoke with Joannie for insight into some important measures NIST is taking to tackle issues around climate change.

What role does NIST play in the realm of buildings and disasters? How does it differ from the role of other agencies?

We bring the new knowledge we collect to the table when different organizations are developing model building codes and standards. These are best practices for building design and construction that can be adopted into law by state and local jurisdictions. Apart from codes, we also directly provide decision tools and resources to community leaders and individual building owners.

NIST’s Engineering Lab has examined the intersection of buildings, infrastructure and disasters for more than 40 years now. How has climate change influenced this work in recent years?

Back in the day, we didn’t think about climate the way we do now. It was just the weather. Hurricanes and tornadoes were things that were normal. But now, in the last decade or two, we’ve come to understand and have reached a consensus on the role of climate change. We’re seeing an increasing trend in natural hazards. For example, major wildfires used to be very rare events. Now you can basically count on them every year. Hurricanes, including stronger ones, are forming more often as well.

What are some specific research questions that need to be answered to help communities better respond to climate change?

Joannie Chin poses smiling for a head shot.

Buildings are responsible for 40% of all U.S. energy use and around 50% of greenhouse gas emissions if you consider both the operations of buildings — electricity, heating and cooling — and the carbon that is embodied in the materials or generated by the construction process.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged populations are often affected by natural disasters and the effects of climate change disproportionately. How is the Engineering Lab accounting for the specific needs of these groups?

One example of work we’re doing in this area is a longitudinal field study we’re conducting in Lumberton, North Carolina, in partnership with the Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning at Colorado State University.

Close-up of road map shows the town of Lumberton.

Are there other threats to the environment that EL’s research portfolio is addressing?

One that we’ve homed in on is air quality, and two aspects of it specifically. First, there’s wildfire smoke, which is a growing problem as wildfires become more common. We know that wildfire smoke can travel for hundreds of miles and really impact outdoor air quality in areas far from the fire, but it can infiltrate homes too. Our researchers are starting to probe the effects of wildfire smoke on indoor air in homes that are either adjacent to the fire or far removed.

The other aspect around air quality is related to infectious disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions such as, what’s an adequate ventilation rate for a specific room and a specific building to help make sure people aren’t catching viruses? Our researchers have been working on modeling tools that help answer questions about things like ventilation for a long time, but they’ve really seen a lot of interest in those tools lately. Applying them in the context of a pandemic has been a really interesting opportunity.

We are looking not only at molecules in the air but also the ones we incorporate into our manufactured products. The circular economy program is a recent effort where we are working with the Material Measurement Lab at NIST to figure out how we can manufacture products so that, at the end of their lives, their materials can be recycled and used again.

Things like recycling, reuse — these are not unfamiliar concepts to us, but actually being able to track the atoms and molecules in products throughout their lifecycle is going to take a lot of research, measurement science and standard test methods. But it’s necessary to keep all those atoms and molecules out of landfills, the water and the atmosphere and maintain them in the value cycle.

What are some major milestones EL has achieved in the climate space that could help communities today?

NIST has produced data, tools and guidance documents to help industry assess and quickly detect faulty operation in HVAC systems, so that repairs can be made to keep systems running at peak efficiency.

Following up on the success of identifying refrigerants with low global warming potential, NIST has collected data to develop databases on the fundamental properties of these refrigerants and their performance and safety in HVAC systems, respectively.

Our technical contributions and leadership in the development of ASHRAE Standard 189.1, which is called Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings, provides industry a path toward energy efficient buildings while improving the indoor environment and minimizing environmental impacts.

We’ve conducted and published several case studies of significant WUI fires, which are a treasure trove of useful insights that could guide community practices. Recently, we’ve gone a step further, taking the information our lab and other institutions have learned to develop the WUI Hazard Mitigation Methodology, a document that outlines recommended practices for wildfire protection across a community.

Another key resource we’ve devised, the Community Resilience Planning Guide, outlines a step-by-step process geared to help local leaders plan for natural hazards, long before they occur, using best practices. This process can address climate effects on communities and natural hazards. People will find the guide most valuable if they use it alongside tools the lab has developed to aid in decision making about investments for community resilience.

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on July 27, 2022.

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