Athienitis, centre, is flanked by graduate students Kwang Park and Thanos
Tzembelikos, with their high-tech window, on the roof of the BE annex,
on Guy and Ste-Catherine.
by Debbie Hum
Rising oil prices may come with a silver lining for the environment. In
fact, Andreas Athienitis, Professor of Building, Civil and Environmental
Engineering, confidently predicts that the 21st century will be the age
A researcher in energy transfer and efficiency in buildings, with an emphasis
on the use of solar and other renewable energies, Athienitis says the
21st-century house will eventually resemble a small power plant
possibly self-sufficient, producing heat for heating, energy for cooling,
electricity for lighting, and hydrogen for running electric cars.
With support from industry and NSERC and FCAR grants, Athienitis is working
on several projects related to the thermal performance of smart buildings,
including refining the simplest, most cost-effective and commonly used
solar energy device available, the window.
People often think of the use of solar energy in terms of active
solar collectors, said Athienitis, and while his research does extend
to still relatively elusive and expensive energy-producing technologies
such as photovoltaic cells, he points out that windows passively provide
buildings with the suns free light and heat. Window technology is
constantly being improved, becoming increasingly sophisticated, energy-efficient
At an outdoor test room on the rooftop of one of Concordias downtown
buildings, Athienitis and graduate students Thanos Tzembelikos and Kwang
Park are testing a new high-technology window which features motor-operated
blinds between two panes of glass.
Solar sensors measure the light and heat outdoors while a computer adjusts
the window blind throughout the day to optimize the amount of daylight
and heat entering the room. Sometimes we only want the visible portion
of solar energy, and other times we also want the heat, Athienitis
explained. The optimal use of solar energy through windows yields meaningful
savings in a buildings energy consumption in lighting, heating and
air-conditioning, he added.
The test room is equipped with a radiant heating system in its flooring,
part of a separate research project on optimization of the indoor environment.
Athienitis is also working with the Montreal General Hospital on thermal
comfort in surgical operating rooms, where patients frequently complain
of feeling cold while the medical team reports feeling too hot.
The idea of considering the building as one thermal system is very
important, and facilitates the efficient use of solar energy and other
renewable energies, Athienitis said. Improvements in the building
envelope bring about greater energy efficiency and reductions in greenhouse
gas emissions, both international goals established at the 1997 Kyoto
conference on climate change.
The self-sufficient building of the future will combine technologies such
as fuel cells (battery-like devices that generate electricity) and photovoltaic
cells (which convert light into electricity) with renewable energies such
as solar, hydro and wind.
Athienitis stressed the importance of diversifying energy sources. Quebec,
for example, depends mainly on hydroelectricity, which is produced far
away from city centres and may be adversely affected by calamities such
earthquakes and ice storms, he said.
People could have stayed in their homes during the  ice storm
had their houses been equipped with a back-up photovoltaic system,
Athienitis said. Photovoltaics such as the panels on solar calculators
are still a relatively expensive technology to implement on a bigger
scale because they must be designed into a building, rather than an add-on.
However, Athienitis pointed out that when integrated into a building,
they become more cost effective because they perform two roles, as an
energy-producing element and a wall, window or roof element, at the same
time. The price of photovoltaics is expected to drop with mass production.
Athienitis also noted that hydroelectric power is cheaper than power derived
from solar energy because it is subsidized by government. Somebody
paid for the construction of all those dams and the costs of transporting
the electricity from James Bay to here.
How quickly changes will occur in the 21st century and Athienitis
is sure they will mostly depends on one factor: If the price
of oil rises, this big change in energy production, which will lead to
many changes in lifestyle, is going to happen very fast, he said.