When the University of Pittsburgh opened its Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation in 2003 it was a much different world than it is today. “We spent a lot of time teaching people what sustainable design was and convincing, or talking to companies and trying to convince them, that it was in their best interest to look at sustainable design,” says Center Co-director Eric Beckman. “Now sometimes I think in academia we are trying to keep up with industry because the industry interest has just exploded.”
More than 300 academicians, engineers, architects and designers will gather in Pittsburgh over the next two days to showcase innovations in sustainable design at the 2011 Engineering Sustainability conference. It is the 4th biennial conference. Beckman says the event features a mixture of disciplines and that makes for some interesting conversations. “When you talk about sustainability and you are an architect or an urban planner you are looking at large link scale things; communities, cities and regions, and then we have folks that are looking at sustainability from a molecular design perspective or from a device perspective,” says Beckman.
Beckman says the event also looks at sustainable engineering at all stages of development. Presentations from the academic community might deal with technology that is still being developed while a presentation from the head of an industry leader may focus on a product that has already hit the market.
Among the speakers will be University of Michigan professor Gregory Keolein. He tries to answer the question, “how do you know when something is green?” Beckman says, “[Keolein] is a pioneer in something called life-cycle analysis… If you’ve got two products you can compare them and determine which one has a smaller environmental footprint.” The lecture could be of heightened interest with the recent release of information that the Pittsburgh convention center (where the event is being held) is not operating with as much energy efficiency as was originally expected.
Beckman says he is keeping an eye on new innovations to make buildings more energy efficient. He says the advice we have been giving people to reduce energy use in homes and buildings has not changed much in the last 30 years. “So for me the next big things are innovations that allow us to greatly reduce the burden we place on the grid in existing homes and buildings. I’m just starting to see interesting ideas in that area.” Beckman says buildings consume about a third of the energy used in the US, meaning a new sustainable engineering breakthrough could have a big impact on power demand.