As the domains of science and industry continue to grow in acquiescence to the urgent demands of environmental pressures, sustainability in design and architecture is becoming ever more embedded into the mold of our daily lives. Once a luxury limited to the virtuous precincts of high society with access to self-styled eco-friendly design firms on the upper-end of the scale, energy efficient methodologies are increasingly as fundamental to the contractor’s inventory as brick and mortar. And out of this democratization of green values has emerged a paradigm shift in the epistemic underpinning that not only encourages the inclusion of energy performance of built environments, but posits how such features ought to perform. It’s a question to which Ohio-based Geneva Middle School was made acquainted by revolutionary Starfield Lighting Automation, whose technology proves seemingly as celestial as its name suggests.
Because utilizing environmentally friendly technologies had until recently demanded fairly immodest means, much of what the marketplace produced has often been marked by ostentatious user modules and a sleek modernist design, signaling and asserting their value. Boulder-based Starfield Lighting Automation, despite its techno-futuristic connotation, has turned this formality inside out. With the automated daylighting apparatus, with which they equipped Geneva Middle School, the effectiveness of the system is directly measured by how removed it is from the visual and mental peripheries of those actively benefitting from it.
The system, which Starfield now markets under the acronym “IRIS,” for Intelligent Room Integration System, accomplishes a lot while remaining tucked modestly into the background, outperforming its competitors both in energy savings and in user-intuitiveness. Some of these feats can in part be attributed to the structural design of the building, armed with maximal daylight-capturing properties such as high ceilings and tactfully sloped ceilings. But how Starfield’s apparatus manages the collected abundance of daylight is what makes this site an Olympic long jump for daylight harvesting technology.
The Starfield system incorporates the three fundamental features of a green energy system—that is, daylighting, user control, and “auto-off”—but harnesses them in an integrated way that allows each function to coordinate with one another so as to optimize overall performance. “Doing any one thing is easy,” explains Wayne Morrow, sales and application engineer at Starfield Controls, while facilitating a gainful relationship between them is what will actually advance energy efficiency. Conventional daylighting systems are operated akin to a thermostat and are manually calibrated by a technician who sets a particular setpoint that determines electric light output. And while this seems efficient enough at first glance, further inspection suggests that there are competing interests perpetually muddling the calibration of the standard daylighting system. Traditionally, daylight sensors are ceiling-mounted and measure reflected light to determine the system’s electric light output, informed by a given setpoint. But since reflected light is determined by factors that change throughout the course of the day, the sensor can’t accurately accommodate the condition of the room without attentive recalibration. What’s more, by the very nature of how the industry standard of such systems operate, any user adjustments must first disable daylight harvesting, and thus any prospect for meaningful energy savings. The IRIS system, on the other hand, utilizes patented artificial intelligence technology to integrate each component in a way that allows the system to behave adaptively and perform efficiently.
“The system uses a form of artificial intelligence called ‘complex adaptive systems,’” Morrow elucidates, that allows each component to operate independently but coordinate globally. “It’s like social media or the stock market. Each component listens for what the other components are doing and then adapts to create an emergent process of continual calibration and coordination.” According to Morrow, the weakness of the conventional model is its singular focus on saving energy. Or, more specifically, excluding users from the design conversation largely negates the majority of potential energy savings. The system boasted by Geneva Middle School, however, is among the first that can honestly be described as user-centric, and delivers a whopping 71 percent space energy savings in occupied spaces as a result. While standard daylighting systems impose a high setpoint (150 percent of design light level) as a means of attempting to manage the constantly changing nature of reflected light, IRIS starts at 50 percent. Users can adjust this as many times as they want, and instead of shutting down, the system components respond accordingly and continue harvesting daylight.
The sincerest metric of user-friendliness for a system of this nature is how aware of it its users are. If you’re conscious of the lighting of the environment encompassing you, it’s likely because you find said lighting bothersome. If it couldn’t be further from your mind, on the other hand, chances are that it’s because the lighting level is pleasant and unobtrusive. Morrow recollects, “When we were commissioning [the Geneva Middle School installation] we went into some of the rooms, adjusted lights up and down, and tried to see it working. We couldn’t. Our instruments showed it working but our eyes said otherwise.” This is also true from a maintenance perspective. Jarrod Burgard, who is the buildings systems manager of Geneva Area City Schools, professes that because the system is so self-efficient and self-maintaining it’s hardly even on his radar. “We don’t even use half of the energy of the typical school,” Burgard states, “and yet it requires almost no input from me. As far as day-to-day maintenance goes, there really isn’t any.”
Despite the effortlessness of the platform, the school earned a LEED Silver accreditation. What’s true elsewhere in technology is ultimately true of energy efficiency: if technology serves its users, its users need not serve the technology. The students and faculty of Geneva Middle School are at the luxury of enjoying one of the greenest facilities in their district whether they know it or not. And if they don’t, well that only reinforces its proficiency.
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