Ali Malkawi has very good timing. In 2013 he moved from the University of Pennsylvania, where he had taught architecture and computational simulation—a sophisticated means of predicting building performance—for more than a decade, to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he is a professor of Architectural Technology. A few months later, Malkawi wrote a proposal for what would be called the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, to be funded with a gift from the Evergrande Group, a Chinese company with $75 billion in assets. (Evergrande’s gift was large enough to also fund centers in mathematics and immunology.)
Photo courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Design
Malkawi was named founding director of the environmental center, which will host an inaugural conference on November 7. He believes the center is uniquely positioned to rethink the design, construction, and operation of buildings to enhance their efficiency—particularly, their use of energy—and to do those things without regard to industry agendas. Malkawi studied engineering in his native Jordan before moving to the U.S. in 1989 to focus on architecture and the computer modeling of buildings. His Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology combined work in three areas: architecture, artificial intelligence, and mechanical engineering, which makes him uniquely qualified to interact not just with architects, but also with the scientists and engineers who are part of his new center.
What is your goal for the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities?
We want to shift the discussion of sustainability from engineering to design. Until now, green design has meant using high-performance materials and complex systems. But those solutions don’t work everywhere. Also, they’re one of the reasons people think green buildings are expensive. We’d like to show people how to make buildings sustainable while spending less.
What’s wrong with current green initiatives?
The current approach is very fragmented—it’s about a lot of components, not about overall performance.
I take it you’re not happy with rating systems like LEED?
They make people think buildings are green when more can be done. And now we’re exporting these rating systems to places like China, where thousands of new buildings are going up. Unless carefully developed for a specific region, such systems don’t reflect the local culture and environment.
Is there a better model?
We’re seeing better results in places where there are legal standards for how buildings must perform. Another approach that seems to work is using performance contracts—in which architects and engineers agree that their buildings will perform at certain levels. That’s been effective in parts of Europe. But in the U.S., the performance contract idea hasn’t taken off.
Will your center be doing research on behalf of manufacturers?
We will collaborate with the building industry but we want to be driving the discussion.
Where will your offices be?
We acquired a house behind Gund Hall on Sumner Road [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] to use as our offices, and also as a laboratory. It’s a pre-War house, of which there are millions in the U.S., so we think we can do a lot of good by learning how to retrofit the house for maximum efficiency. We’re going to make it a net producer of energy.
How can you do that in New England?
First, you cut heating loads. In the south façade, there will be multiple layers of glass; as the air between the layers heats up, a heat exchanger can bring it into the building, or stored in a thermal mass to be used at a later time. We’re studying where we should be putting glass and what the properties of that glass should be, and the possibilities of inventing new materials that can be connected to systems at low cost. Then you cut cooling loads. We’ll be creating pressure differences through the use of thermal chimneys, to foster natural ventilation.
Won't you still need power?
The little electricity we need will come from PV panels on the roof. Since we expect to produce more electricity than we need, we are talking to people from Harvard who are designing innovative storage batteries.
No wind turbines in the yard?
I consulted on a 50-story building that was going to have 24 wind turbines. And altogether, they would have produced about 2% of the building’s energy needs. Currently turbine technology is not optimized to be integrated into buildings.
When you talk about making the building a net producer of electricity, are you counting the energy it takes, for instance, to make the glass, as well as transport and install it?
Absolutely. We’re not going easy on ourselves. We are looking at carbon emissions associated with our materials from fabrication to demolition. If you think about materials that way, you’ll want to use less of everything.
Who’s the architect for your project?
We have a team of about 20 people [from the Harvard Graduate School of Design] who have been working on the project. I would say eight or 10 of us are architects. Eventually we’ll have an architect of record.
You also work as a consultant. Can you tell us about one of your projects?
I worked with Victor Marquez Architects on the new Monterrey International Airport terminal in Mexico. My focus was energy consumption. To minimize the cooling load, we designed a double-skin roof, where air was able to move naturally between the two layers. And we divided the building into zones: some that do not require any heating or cooling, others that need some heating or cooling, and still others where you need complete control. We created that hierarchy, in section as well as plan.
How is it working out?
I have not seen the performance data yet.
Is that a problem with being a consultant?
Yes, your role is limited. You provide advice on one aspect of the building, but the architect or client decides what actually gets built.
As for your academic career, why did you decide to move to Harvard?
I had a very productive 12 years at Penn. Then Harvard offered a change of venue that will allow me to advance my research agenda on a global scale.