Professor aims to improve energy efficiency in buildings

Amanda Webb receives ASHRAE New Investigator Award

Amanda Webb headshot

Amanda Webb. Photo/UC Creative + Brand

Amanda Webb, assistant professor of architectural engineering at the University of Cincinnati, is committed to making the buildings in which we live and work more energy efficient. 

Her research work at UC centers on improving energy performance in modern buildings and how to effectively retrofit historic buildings to preserve them while improving energy use. 

Webb was named the 2020 recipient of the New Investigator Award from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) which provides $125,000 in support of her research that will create and expand the benchmarking statistics used to measure a building’s energy performance. 

ASHRAE is billed as “a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment” — a descriptor that Webb seeks to embody through her research work and in her encouragement of her students. 

Inspired by the connections and experience she gained in her professional and academic life as a member of ASHRAE, Webb has worked to revitalize UC’s ASHRAE student branch with monthly meetings, guest speakers, networking, social events and a student leadership team. She also encourages her students to apply for the national organization’s student scholarships, which she benefitted from as a student.

“I want our UC architectural engineering graduates to be involved in their local chapters, and in writing ASHRAE standards and guidelines,” Webb said. “I want them to see that the documents that we used in class — the guidelines and standards — are developed by a volunteer effort from professionals just like them. And they could be at that table someday making those decisions.”

Webb has helped create ASHRAE guidelines for more sustainable buildings. She was on the committee that developed and published guidelines for retrofitting historic buildings for improved energy efficiency, which was also the subject of her doctoral thesis. She currently holds a leadership role on a technical committee for building energy performance, including energy audits and benchmarking. 

What we build dictates how we use energy and how we value the natural environment and natural resources.

Amanda Webb, UC architectural engineering professor

Webb took a non-linear path to UC and to the field of architectural engineering, but each step along the way now serves as valuable experience to share with her students and through her research projects. 

As an undergraduate at Yale University, Webb merged two interests by double majoring in philosophy and architecture. She discovered the two fields of study are complementary.  

“I found architecture to be kind of the concrete or physical embodiment of philosophy,” Webb said. “What we build says something about what we value as a society—and I say this to my students all the time. How do we value social interaction? How do we value space? And for me, this has really taken the form of: how do we use energy?” 

“What we build dictates how we use energy and how we value the natural environment and natural resources. I find that endlessly fascinating because it has reverberations in things like energy burden, our physical infrastructure for electricity, our grid, our energy mix and all of that,” Webb said.

After college, Webb spent four years working for Atelier Ten as a sustainability consultant, primarily for new construction projects. She worked in New York City and then moved to San Francisco to help open a new office. Webb then earned her master’s degree in architectural studies in the building technology program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She spent a year working as an energy auditor for the state of Illinois before going to Penn State University where she earned her Ph.D. in architectural engineering. 

In the fall of 2017, she joined UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management. As soon as she arrived in Cincinnati, she began attending public forums to help revamp the Green Cincinnati Plan, the city’s sustainability master plan. She built relationships with city leaders that resulted in several research projects. Webb and some UC students were part of an exploratory committee that gathered data on buildings’ energy use that ultimately helped Cincinnati with the launch of a 2030 District, in which members pledge to reduce by half the energy consumption, water consumption and transportation emissions by 2030. The University of Cincinnati has also joined the 2030 District.  

In a recent study of the city’s multifamily residential housing stock, Webb found disparities in energy efficiency. Energy cost intensity (cost per square foot) and energy burden are unevenly distributed throughout the city, with up to 20 percent of some tenants' income going to energy bills.

“People’s energy burden is not made equal across the city and that is, in part, due to the inefficiency of our housing stock,” Webb said. “And that’s simply not fair.”

Cincinnati's Office of Environment and Sustainability will incorporate the findings into policy that could address these inequities for impacted residents and reduce the city's overall greenhouse gas emissions.

She also has an ASHRAE-funded project on the development of a standardized categorization system for energy efficiency measures. Without a standard way of classifying the actions people take to improve building energy performance, it’s impossible to compare post-retrofit results. 

Webb’s research group is also studying when — not just how much — a building uses energy, which has an impact on carbon emissions. And she is in the final stages of completing a project evaluating insulation retrofits of historic buildings.

“I think my interest around historic buildings and energy has always been a blend of the technical quantification and the purpose-driven ‘why,’” Webb said. “We are not the research group that is going to come up with some new widget or device. I’m focused on how to take the technical information and use it to answer questions of ‘why’ that are relevant to policy.”  

Featured image at top: Cincinnati historic buildings. Photo/Adam Sonnett/Flickr.