In this Centerline we introduce two rising stars from CBE’s research team, Akihisa (Aki) Nomoto and Matt Roberts, the most recent postdoctoral scholars to join our center. Aki’s academic background includes architecture and engineering, with a focus on thermal comfort in complex environments based on human physiology, biophilic and climate-responsive design. Matt brings to CBE extensive expertise in life-cycle assessment (LCA) methods, including in buildings with on-site energy storage and on-site energy generation.
How did you first come to hear about opportunities at CBE?
Aki: CBE has been leading the thermal comfort research field over the past 20 or 30 years. So as an undergraduate student, I really wanted to join CBE, and I have known about the group for a long time.
Matt: I heard about CBE through a colleague in the UK. CBE was advertising a position and it was sent around through a newsletter. And then that colleague told me that I would be a good fit for the position. And I wasn’t actually eligible for the position, but I’m here!
With many options available to you after graduation, what made you decide to join our research team?
Aki: I was looking for a postdoc position outside of Japan. Options included CBE of course, and also the Technical University of Denmark. But I’m more interested in the U.S. so that’s the reason I joined CBE.
Matt: I joined based on the reputation, in terms of both for CBE and Berkeley as a whole. And also the ability to craft my own research plan and to make a name for myself within the fields of LCA and embodied carbon research.
What were some of your first impressions about UC Berkeley and life in California?
Matt: CBE is a great place and I have really enjoyed it so far. The team is very welcoming and open to my weird and wacky ideas for doing LCA research. And they’ve been very encouraging of the ambitious plans I have, even though I’m currently the only person doing LCA research within the team, I feel like I have the support to carry out the work that I need to do.
Aki: The weather for sure, it’s so good and throughout the year it’s always comfortable. It’s completely different from Japan, so I started to like hiking after I came here.
You are both working on cutting-edge research here at CBE. What are you working on, and what do you hope to accomplish in the near term?
Aki: My former work was about predicting people’s thermal comfort. I want to continue that research, and I want to integrate that research with HVAC technology, for example, so that AC can be controlled automatically to optimize the temperature to make people more comfortable.
Matt: First, we’re looking at the embodied environmental impacts, from producing the materials or components and installing them within a building. We’re looking at the MEP/building services within a building, which historically have been overlooked within building LCA to date. We’re getting an idea about the actual impact from those systems, and how we can reduce it. We are also looking at developing consequential lifecycle assessment methodology, which is an emerging field and arguably a more accurate methodology that we should be using, as well as looking at the role of carbon offsets for carbon-neutral and carbon-positive building classifications.
These are important topics and goals. Do you have any additional longer-term goals?
Aki: Actually, the work I described is a fairly long-term goal!
Matt: It would be great to get everybody involved with the building design process, to be able to engage and discuss environmental impacts and lifecycle assessment from the earliest stages of the design process. That’s going to be challenging, but the ideal is that everybody is equipped with the tools and resources to be able to participate within the discussions about LCA, which arguably starts at teaching the new generation — showing them how to engage with it and knowing what questions to ask.
What is something important that that people would find really surprising about your research?
Aki: In the research I conducted in Japan, I measured people’s metabolism, which is heat production inside the body, and I found out there is a huge difference between Japanese people and Western people. I found that the Japanese metabolic rate is lower than for Western people, so they prefer a higher temperature. Also, Japanese women’s metabolic rate is lower than males. Indoor standards in many countries often refer to ASHRAE, but the underlying data measured in the 1960s were from Western populations. This is one of the biggest research findings from my PhD. But I’m really surprised that U.S. buildings are generally so over-cooled, and I think even many Americans are feeling cold.
Matt: Probably that there isn’t a cure-all solution. It’s very case-specific, which is not ideal because everybody wants the kind of generalizations that you can get in a lot of other fields. So a net-zero carbon building in Berkeley would be potentially different than what the net-zero carbon building is in Toronto or London, or anywhere else in the world. There are some rules of thumb people can use, but impact reduction strategies for one context might not be effective in a different context.
Are there myths related to the research that you do?
Matt: One of the myths is that we’re only looking at carbon. And the other myth is that it is simply multiplying a carbon factor by an amount of various material, which is a gross oversimplification for all the intricacies that are involved, and quantifying the environmental impacts that occur throughout all stages of the supply chain and the building’s lifespan. While they may be calculations, it is like an interwoven matrix or web of things that interplay with one another.
Aki: I think that industry views about comfort are a little outdated. So our standards or our control algorithms about comfort don’t follow what we are feeling, and that’s something that we have to change.
Something unique to CBE’s work is the diverse group of industry partners who are integral to CBE. How is this useful to your work, and what partners have you worked with so far?
Aki: This is really useful for me because researchers should care about the application of our research. In Japan I was focusing on very fundamental topics and in lab settings, but it’s not always applicable in the real world. So it’s a really good opportunity for me to work with industry and real buildings. I have been working with Daikin on a new HVAC control technology to reduce over-cooling and make people comfortable using small IR cameras, to predict people’s summer comfort and optimize the indoor temperature.
Matt: It’s incredibly helpful and beneficial because it provides a direct route from the academic research to impact within industry, which is crucial right now when dealing with climate change, and industry organizations want to make a difference. It’s also beneficial as many industry partners are willing to provide case studies and data and resources to help the academic side of research. It’s beneficial for the industry partners as well. I am working with many partner firms — Harris, JLG Architects, EHDD, Atelier Ten and Arup.