Christopher Meek is a faculty member in University of Washington’s Department of Architecture and a director in the Integrated Design Lab in the Center for Integrated Design, located in the Bullitt Center. He teaches during the school year and the rest of his time is focused on research on high-performance buildings. We sat down with him to learn more about his work.
Urban@UW: What are your current research interests and how do you see them relating to urban issues and cities?
Meek: The Integrated Design Lab (IDL), focuses on three primary activities. One is research: we’re studying high performance buildings, how they perform out in the field, and creating tools for people to be able to better build them. The second facet is technical assistance and project-based research: engaging with design teams that are trying to innovate in their practice, around energy efficiency, high performance buildings, health-design, daylighting, and providing technical simulation support to help them better make those decisions within their firm. The third thing we do is professional education. We partner with the American Institute of Architects and we’ve done three significant projects in the Puget Sound region that are now pilots for national programs. One is called AIA +2030 Professional Series, teaching people how to design energy-efficient buildings to meet the 2030 Challenge. The second one, which is on a national rollout, is called Getting To Zero. It presents technical, financial and practice opportunities and barriers to the widespread adoption of net-zero-energy buildings. And the third is Materials Matter, which presents current scientific knowledge of the impact of materials on environmental health, on human health and on life-cycle assessment to make better decisions in buildings. Materials Matter was a collaboration with IDL, the Carbon Leadership Forum (led by Prof. Kate Simonen) in the Department of Architecture and the Health Products Declaration Collaborative.
Urban@UW: What specific urban challenges do you see your work addressing?
Meek: In a big picture sense, buildings are responsible for about 40% of the carbon emissions in the US, so pushing for net-zero-energy buildings and low-energy, high-performance buildings contributes to reduction of carbon emissions. They also create higher-quality, healthier places for people to live. I’m interested in health design, and inter-relationships: buildings that support the circadian rhythm through a strong connection to the outside, that have healthy indoor environmental quality through natural ventilation by using climate and ecosystem as a resource—rather than trying to hold those out and use energy for purely mechanical systems.
Urban@UW: What led you to this area of study?
Meek: I started my career in New Orleans, and I worked on a lot of historic buildings and I just fell in love with them. The more that I looked at them and understood them, the more that I realized that many of the aspects that drew me to them, their proportions and relationships were about providing light or allowing fresh air to come through the buildings, to really integrate and connect with the neighborhood and the landscape. Originally in my undergraduate work I was really interested in solar architecture and environmentally sustainable architecture. When I came to UW I met Professor Emeritus Joel Loveland and I started working with him on issues of daylighting and energy efficiency, and I have just taken it from there. I love engaging with practitioners and hearing their ideas and learning what their concerns are, and then bringing those concerns to my teaching and my research—so that it feeds back and then, hopefully in a small way, elevates the practice here.
Urban@UW: Speaking on that, who do you normally work with, who is in your network or who would you like to work with in the future at UW?
Meek: We have a great team at IDL. Every day I work with Heather Burpee, Michael Gilbride, Deborah Sigler, and Tina Dilegge at IDL. Heather Burpee and I work together on virtually everything our lab does, we run the labs operations and get grants. Michael Gilbride does a lot of our simulation work and manages our GSAs. I also work with Rob Peña and Kate. I really enjoy working students; we have between five and ten graduate students in our lab at any given time. I’ve also worked a little bit with Thaisa Way; through Urban@UW she’s helped me connect to a university in China and meet some faculty over there. Our lab has signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate with a similar lab at Tsinghua University in Beijing. As far as others, I’m excited to make more connections amongst the faculty in CBE and in the broader university. I recently met Prof. Peter Kahn, an environmental psychologist with some really interesting ideas. I need to be pro-active to engage with others at UW since being off-campus most of the time can sometimes be a little isolating.
Urban@UW: Earlier you spoke about going out into the field to see how buildings perform, what do you think is the role of data in enhancing the user experience?
Meek: I think it’s really important, because data can be a good way of understanding how a building is performing operationally in terms of heating and cooling, lighting, ventilation. It can also help us better understand what makes people happy in buildings, or what makes them healthy or makes them more satisfied or more productive. That’s a huge opportunity and I’d love to have more resources to pursue that because it’s expensive.
Urban@UW: What kinds of new data sources can you use in high-performance buildings and other energy efficiency projects?
Meek: Our lab is in the Bullitt Center and it’s pretty heavily instrumented, with devices that track energy use by either device or by pieces of equipment or by circuit. That is a great resource for us; it’s become the basis of a number of research papers we’ve written and projects we’ve done. I think as a demonstration building it provides good evidence for people who want to follow in its path, or ideally exceed it’s performance.
Urban@UW: How integral do you think the role of industry is for understanding and impacting the future of a city?
Meek: It’s huge: if you look at EPA statistics from over 20 years ago the average North American spends 90% of their time indoors. The built environment, cities but especially building interiors, are our new habitat. As building designers, owners, and developers we now have a role in defining the physical setting that basically all human life takes place in. Buildings are large and the way they inhabit the cityscape and the way they interface with the natural world and other things that are really important to us as a species… I think it’s almost impossible to overstate the power of buildings and the urban fabric to impact our lives.
Urban@UW: What do you see coming up next for you?
Meek: Our lab operates on research dollars, I put in proposals all the time, and the ones that succeed forms our research activity. But I know we’re going to be focusing on a project with the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment: they are implementing a policy to tune up buildings every four years. I would also like to do much more in the quantification of occupant impacts, productivity, health outcomes, and behavior change in high-performance buildings. More evidence about the impact that buildings can have in terms of health and productivity. Finding innovative ways to engage with practice is valuable for me as a teacher and researcher, getting feedback from people out on the field who are addressing these problems, understanding what their challenges are and finding ways to incorporate those challenges into my research and teaching and to then again feed back into practice through students that are better attuned to the needs of practice. Understanding what people are doing in practice helps me sharpen my research focus.
Urban@UW: What is on your reading list these days?
Meek: I think reading about the possible good in the world and the possible bad in the world helps take the limits off what I see as possibilities, so I get inspired by fiction. I read a lot of academic papers, so when I have time to read for myself I want to look into the window of people who spend their time imagining things.
Urban@UW: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Meek: I think that if we get to a point where we can truly understand, quantify, and demonstrate the impacts of buildings on our society for social good, architects will never run out of work. Because I think it’s so impactful what we do and the better we can understand that the better we can promote the value that our profession can bring to society.
Written by Shahd Al Baz, Urban@UW Communications Assistant