BRANZ’s collaborative science

This Issue This is a part of the Why science matters feature

By - , Build 178

BRANZ scientists work collaboratively and in multi-disciplinary teams to effectively find answers to some of the complex issues that buildings present, particularly as the push to higher-performing buildings grows.

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AS WITH MANY other professions, the way we do science has changed over the decades. A hundred years ago, research and fundamental discoveries could still be carried out by individuals.

However, this has changed in fundamental as well as applied science over the years, and teams have become the dominant structure to achieve valuable science. Now, multi-disciplinary teams broaden the knowledge base of the team, enabling it to approach a problem from different viewpoints.

WAVE project set the pattern

Teams working in collaboration are the main research structure at BRANZ, working on research projects and addressing problems that can be solved over the lifetime of a project.

The precursor to this was the building performance research programme Weathertightness, Air-quality and Ventilation Engineering (WAVE), funded by the Building Levy and the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. Commencing 10 years ago, WAVE allowed us to address multiple problem areas that were dependent on each other. This is because a building is not a structure of many individual, independent parts. All parts are connected, and the lack of performance in one part can affect all the other parts to various degrees.

The WAVE programme focused on research in weathertightness, interstitial moisture, ventilation and indoor air quality.

Programmes of work with time goals

The idea of research programmes of work has solidified over the years. New programmes were created such as Warmer, drier, healthier homes, Exceeding the minimum, Medium-density housing, Eliminating quality issues, Low-carbon economy and Fire, alongside other research activities.

Each of the programmes of work has goals its wants to achieve within a finite time. These goals are the drivers for each project under the programme, and the projects work on an aspect to help achieve them.

Building science deals with many unknowns

Building science is not rocket science someone recently said to me. I fully agree. A rocket is built to very tight specifications, and one rocket is basically indistinguishable from the next in the same series. The performance of a rocket is well known and identical. Astronauts have a manual telling them what to do and what not to do.

Buildings, however, are very different from each other. Two buildings built from the same drawings, using the same materials will look the same but might perform very differently when in use.

Building science deals with many more unknowns in the operation of a building.

Today, as we demand higher and higher performing buildings in terms of energy use, comfort and health, we can no longer seek purely technical solutions. We need to understand the way solutions are used and what is expected from the solution.

Aim for practical, usable solutions

Laboratory buildings work fine most of the time as they lack an aspect of real building – the occupant. Solutions are incomplete as long as many of the human aspects of using a building and its environment are missing. Today, therefore, building science is a multi-disciplinary research effort.

The research disciplines BRANZ employs to create a solid and practical solution to a problem include social sciences, economics, chemistry, physics and other disciplines.

This expertise is either directly available at BRANZ or is provided in collaboration with external research partners including key stakeholders and the industry. External research partners are invaluable as they allow us to create project teams with the right mix of expertise.

Plans for research centres

Moving beyond teams, BRANZ is currently in the process of  developing research centres to provide platforms where research collaboration and, more importantly, coordination are the goals.

One in the creation phase is the Indoor Air Quality research centre. This will involve researchers from around New Zealand providing their expertise and coordinating research efforts to achieve the best possible outcome for the country. Other research centres are in the planning.

International collaboration helps build research networks

Internationally, we have been active for many years and joined research projects including some under the umbrella of the International Energy Agency and the Energy in Buildings Committee.

We have contributed to research efforts and have learned how others approach building research and what legislative frameworks their industries are working under.

Being part of these projects is helping us to form research networks. Over the years, we have built particularly strong connections with institutes in Canada, Germany and France. The goal is to freely exchange ideas, learn from the experience of researchers from other legislative frameworks, share our knowledge and form research teams with a broad research horizon. This also allows us to run workshops in New Zealand with international experts, such as the AIVC ventilation workshop in Wellington in 2018.

Robust science and industry solutions

While solutions must be robust, it is also necessary to move quickly in finding answers. This is achieved by researchers working with industry to achieve a balance between rigorous scientific work and timely solutions.

The science is driven by the need to understand the problem in detail so we know under what circumstances the solution will fail. While it is good to know that a solution works right now, new building materials and building practices are introduced all the time. Some or a combination might break the robustness of the solution, and new problems may arise. We have to leave the fragile performance behind and aim for robustness.

What is the value of building science? Our science today covers a larger gambit of parameters of a problem so we can understand the many facets that influence it. This will continue as the building industry shifts towards higher-performing buildings.

Our approach now creates a solution space with collaboration across projects and research disciplines. It involves industry and researchers working together to achieve a level of knowledge about the building processes that result in robustly performing buildings being built in New Zealand.

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