How the U.S. Government is Using Technology To Save Oil—and Lives

Researching ways to measure the complex interactions between architecture, environment, and culture

Inefficient energy use is a battlefield liability. One out of every eight casualties in Iraq, between 2003 and 2007, came during fuel deliveries. One in every 50 fuel convoys experienced a personnel casualty or loss.

For the Pentagon, reducing these losses is mission-critical. In addition to the astonishing cost in human lives, the U.S. government can ill afford to spend cash this way. The Department of Defense (DOD) gobbles up the equivalent of 360,000 barrels of oil per day, making it the largest consumer of oil in the world. In fiscal year 2009, that added up to 932 trillion Btu of site-delivered energy at a cost of $13.3 billion to U.S. taxpayers.

The Pentagon is exploring many routes to reduce these costs. One of the more surprising solutions is under development by the San Francisco-based firm, MKThink. Calling themselves the “ideas company for the built environment,” MKThink is engaged in a research project dubbed REACHE (pronounced “ree-shay”)—Renewable Energy Architecture for Cultural and Human Environments—under contract from the Office of Naval Research. Its objective is to measure how cultural values and patterns facilitate or, conversely, inhibit, the adoption of more efficient energy technologies and practices.

Conventional sustainable energy strategies focus on the relationships between architecture and the environment, with people considered only as beneficiaries of those strategies. Rarely has the willingness or ability of people to adopt a particular strategy been systematically studied, despite widely known instances of epic failure: roto-tillers rusting on the borders of Tanzanian fields for lack of fuel to run them; fuel-efficient stoves, meant to stem deforestation, rejected because the bread doesn’t come out with the right crust.

The aim of REACHE is to complete the calculus, measuring the complex interactions among the three dimensions—architecture, environment, and culture.

To begin their field research, a team from MKThink traveled to a Marine Corps Forward Operating Base in the Philippines to study the people, the spaces they inhabit, and the conditions around them. They set up HOBO Data Loggers around the billets—large tents that house 20 marines—not only to measure environmental factors like temperature and humidity, but also to track the comings and goings of the marines themselves. The goal was to figure out how to house the most marines in passable comfort, using the least energy.

Doing this is more of a puzzle than it might seem. To add more marines to the base, will it make more sense to add an air a/c vent to each of the existing billets, so they can accommodate a couple more persons each? Or, to build an additional billet? If the billets are uncomfortable for only an hour in the afternoon, will more sophisticated controls do the trick? Perhaps opening ventilation flaps early in the morning will reduce the cooling load—but will that fit reliably into the troops’ routine?

Ultimately, any solution must weigh different scales of intervention—in this case, vents vs. billets—the passage of time, and the behavior of the inhabitants. And it must compare upfront costs with savings in energy costs over the length of the deployment. The world has become evermore connected and dynamic such that simply testing technologies in the lab does not accurately recreate the efficiency and efficacy gains in the outside world. The REACHE program acknowledges the interdependencies of technology, environment, and behavior inherent in this new world and sets forth a framework for measuring and analyzing the impact these relationships have on desired organizational outcomes.

While most of the current work focuses on reducing energy use and power demand at forward deployed marine bases, it’s easy to see how the same framework could be applied to a school campus complete with aging facilities, modern technology, diverse user groups, and seasonal environments that also require measurement and analysis to connect their condition to graduation rates, application numbers, school rankings, and so forth. Without this information and insight, we may as well be throwing good money after bad without any idea to where the true investments opportunities lie.

For the DOD, the potential benefits of studying efficiency and productivity are twofold. First is measurable progress toward the goals of its Operational Energy Strategy: “more fight, less fuel; more options, less risk; more capability, less cost.” Second is the possibility of improved relations with the local cultures among which forces are deployed, as the scale of investigation grows to incorporate the interface between the base and its surroundings.

REACHE aims to provide a powerful analytical logic for understanding the full-picture effects of energy-generating, energy-efficient, and sustainable architectural technologies on local environments and communities, contributing to the DOD’s strategic goals, wherever U.S. troops are deployed, while working with—instead of against—local cultures.

“Discovering the granularities of resource utilization is key. We need to look beyond how much energy is used, and place resource consumption within organizational context,” says MKThink’s Mark Miller. “Understanding the interplay among resource usage, built assets, and organizational culture provides clues to develop meaningful strategies for improving efficiency without loss of performance. This is the premise of REACHE.”

Tim Culvahouse is editor in chief of the AIA California Council. 

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