Buildings are a big environmental headache. They account for 40 percent of the world's energy use and are the largest source of climate-changing emissions.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are addressing these problems in a roof-top laboratory called the Intelligent Workplace.
It's an open and airy space that architecture professor Stephen Lee calls a "living, lived in laboratory." Graduate students and faculty are working in their modular offices, but as Lee points out, no lights are on, despite the late afternoon hour.
"We very carefully designed the facility to capture abundant natural resources and also get beautiful views across this urban campus," he says.
The windows help to ventilate and control the ambient environment "without consuming any additional energy in that process," Lee says.
The Intelligent Workplace has glare-resistant windows, pipes that carry water warmed by recycled waste heat and modular furniture and walls that can be moved around.
"When we change, we change overnight," Lee says. "There is no dust that is generated, no waste that is generated. We just reconfigure the space, and we are up and running instantaneously."
The laboratory is a place to experiment. One student is testing bio-fuels in the basement generator. Another is analyzing the common workplace problem of a single thermostat controlling the temperature for an entire suite of offices.
"We hope that his research will lead to new sensing technologies to enable people to individually adjust their environments to be more comfortable," Lee says.
"This is not comfort for comfort sake," he adds. "There is a direct correlation between one's visual comfort, thermal comfort, acoustic comfort and their ability to produce work creatively and effectively."
In the corporate world, PNC Financial Services is putting that vision into practice for its 58,000 employees in 34 U.S. states and four European countries. Gary Saulson is responsible for all the buildings the company owns or leases and has made the intelligent workplace a corporate priority.
He tries out new ideas in his office not far from the Carnegie Mellon University campus. What sounds like running water was the prototype for a system that masks distracting noises. The devise was eventually installed in PNC Firstside Center, a facility which opened in 2000 on the grounds of a former railroad terminal in downtown Pittsburgh.
Employees work in large open areas that bask in natural light from oversized windows and a central five-story high atrium. The modular design gives workers places to meet, eat and take a break. No one - not even managers like Leo Beck - has a private office, an amenity Beck says he gave up to come work here.
"I love the open environment we have," he says.
He also loves that co-workers are nearby. "It helps me to be more efficient on the job," he says.
Firstside Center also meets green building standards, as do 55 PNC bank branches. Gary Saulson says the strategy makes good sense for the environment, the employees and the corporate bottom line.
"I think that the green train has left the station, but it's not too late to get on, and more and more people are getting on every day."
PNC's commitment is not an isolated trend. Carnegie Mellon architect Stephen Lee says that the current climate of political change and economic stress is generating a new enthusiasm to make the green and intelligent workplace a reality.