Assistant professor Philip Agee, right, demonstrates a blower door test. Credit: Chiravi Patel / Courtesy

“When technologies don’t align with people’s needs, people don’t use them,” says Virginia Tech assistant professor Philip Agee.

Rookie assistant professor Philip Agee figured academia would be somewhat chaotic. But he never envisioned a germ upending the end of his first academic year at Virginia Tech — and the beginning of his second.

Pandemic precautions mean Agee is once again juggling in-person and online classes in building construction on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus this semester.

But his lessons on energy efficiency and humans’ relationships with the built environment seem especially germane as the novel coronavirus has elevated conversations about maximizing inside comfort and safety. 

“COVID-19 has caused a lot of misery and hurt,” Agee said. “The silver lining is that it’s putting more emphasis on a healthy indoor environment.”

Philip Agee (photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)

He grew up in rural Powhatan County, west of Richmond, doing chores on his grandparents’ dairy farm and laboring for a construction contractor during his high school summers.

Virginia Tech — officially known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — hired Agee in August 2019 right after he completed his dissertation. He teaches undergraduates at the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, which combines architecture and engineering programs under one roof. In tandem, he works with undergraduate and graduate students to conduct in-depth studies for the Virginia Center for Housing Research.

He wants to instill in future engineers and architects the ability to be flexible and open-minded in a sometimes stodgy industry that has to be prodded to evolve. Change matters, he said, because studies he cites reveal that we spend at least 80% of our lives indoors.

When classes began in late August, Agee reminded his students to persevere under less-than-ideal circumstances.

“Adaptability is a muscle that needs to be exercised,” the 35-year-old told them.  “We all have to have a little extra patience and give people breathing room.” 

In this Q&A with the Energy News Network, Agee delves into why society should demand more from its physical surroundings. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: First, can you give one example of how the threat of COVID-19 is affecting your approach to this semester? 

A: The way our curriculum is designed is to emphasize experiential learning. Our interdisciplinary approach to construction combines future civil engineers, architects and construction managers. Teaching project management and critical thinking skills is the glue that holds this all together.

One of my classes requires students to prepare a comprehensive preconstruction plan for the recently built $40 million New Classroom Building. Also, our programs will be breaking ground on Hitt Hall in the next few months, which allows us to double the size of our program. Industry partners welcome our students to job sites on campus. That involves interacting with construction crews. It’s one thing to look at blueprints and another to smell, feel and see it, whether it’s the steel frame, the HVAC system or the plumbing.     

I have to divide a class of 50 to 60 people in half, so we’re missing out on sitting down together to talk through questions. It requires Zoom calls, keeping a positive attitude and adapting.

Q: As an undergraduate, you majored in biology at Hampden-Sydney, a small liberal arts college in south-central Virginia. Why biology?

A: In high school, I was outside a lot at my grandparents’ dairy farm, being involved with Future Farmers of America, hunting, fishing, and framing houses and doing carpentry as a summer job.

But I knew I didn’t want to do construction for the rest of my life so I figured I better study hard at college. I knew I wanted to study science because I liked learning about plants and animals and their relationship with the environment.

Q: You did end up in construction, but as a teacher instead of a laborer. How did that happen?

A: Out of college, I worked at an environmental nonprofit before going to a Richmond nonprofit that specialized in energy efficiency and sustainability.

After seven or eight years, I felt like my knowledge was plateauing. I reached out to the Virginia Center for Housing Research and made connections that led me to leave that job and embark on graduate school.

Q: Why is Virginia Tech a good fit?

A: My master’s degree in building construction science management validated how the energy pie was changing. That is, during the 1990s so much energy went to heating and cooling buildings. Now, with so many improvements on that front, I wanted to focus on the human factors for my Ph.D. It’s about how people use the lights, computers and ventilation systems and how to regulate that. We need to recognize that energy use is changing and we don’t need to tolerate poor design.

My joint appointment with the Virginia Center for Housing Research makes for nice cross-pollination. The General Assembly created the center in 1980s to do research, not develop policy.

There are more opportunities here than there is time in the day.

Q: Residential and commercial buildings make up roughly 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions in this country. That’s a drop from peak emissions 15 years ago, but still not stellar. Short of replacing all energy-hog buildings, what needs to happen?

A: That’s a profound question. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time by producing more housing and reducing emissions. For instance, with its affordable housing crisis, Virginia is a microcosm for the country. We need weatherization, education, Energy Star, all kinds of solar, and a better grid.

Very few systems are as opaque as electric bills. Utilities have a long way to go to design systems that provide useful information to users. Every other industry has done that by putting human needs and wants at the center and making them the priority.

Energy efficiency is a goal, but on every level we need to design for the senses and ask whether a certain solution improves a person’s well-being.

Q: Does Virginia have the potential to be a pacesetter on this front?

A: Yes. In some ways, Virginia already is in the Southeast, even though neighboring Maryland is farther along on the building code. Our biggest challenge is on building codes because they fundamentally raise the bar for everyone and are the fastest way to advance this cause.

Virginia is in a pretty good place with solar and we have well-established weatherization programs and providers. Also, if you look at affordable housing in the state, about 300 multifamily rental developments representing roughly 25,000 units have used third-party energy-efficiency programs in pursuit of low-income housing tax credits in the last 10 years.

Q: Zero-energy buildings are a trend, but people assume they are prohibitively expensive. What recent advances have made them less expensive?  

A: The installed cost of solar has fallen 60% over the last five to six years, so that market is mature. We’ve gotten so much better at this that we can build residential buildings that use 50% less energy than a code-built house at the same cost.

Virginia Housing carries the U.S. Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Program as an option for developers pursuing low-income housing tax credits. If such a large-volume producer of residential buildings can do it, then anyone can.

It’s technology that’s here and we can do it. It doesn’t need to be cocktail party conversation, it needs to be the standard. Of course, there would be variations across the state because Hampton Roads has more solar radiation than southwest Virginia. But what makes homes more energy efficient also makes them more comfortable.

Q: You emphasize human factors in construction. Is thinking about the relationship between people and the built environment new or has it been around since humans first sought rudimentary shelter tens of thousands of years ago?

A: Part of this is recognizing that humans and the built environment are linked. Increasingly, we need to design things with people in mind. When technologies don’t align with people’s needs, people don’t use them.

It’s challenging because the construction industry isn’t used to this. The key is, how do you improve the lives of not only the people building the project, but those managing it or living in it? I hope this thinking will be around a long time because that’s the wave I’m riding.

Q: You make it clear that people don’t tolerate suboptimal design with their smartphones, but rarely think about clunky, inefficient buildings. How do you teach your students to pay attention to buildings and care about changing traditional designs and thinking?

A: We get to bring what’s cutting edge in research and transfer it into curriculum and into the classroom. One example is a class on smart-building sensors. It’s a mutual experience because students shape it as well. The students want to have an impact and their enthusiasm drives what we do.

We train critical thinkers to sort through the noise. I get inspiration working with students.

Q: Part of that instruction links your students with weatherization lessons from Community Housing Partners, a leading energy efficiency nonprofit in Christiansburg, Virginia. Why do you continue that relationship that a now-retired professor began several years ago?

A: Community Housing Partners is a nonprofit that is mission-driven so it has a lot of shared values with Virginia Tech and it’s right here in our back yard. It gives students an opportunity to study real projects and see pathways to different careers. 

The program gives students opportunities to go out and experience our industry in different ways. Many students will go to work with large contractors. Part of this is showing students that there’s more to construction than just reinforced concrete and steel buildings in Washington, D.C., and New York City. The ethos of this program is the lesson that people can have a big impact on the built environment, people’s lives in rural communities and improving people’s socioeconomic status.

People like Anthony Cox, the lead trainer at Community Housing Partners Energy Solutions, have always been generous with their knowledge and time. He’s the godfather of building diagnostics and I want my students to meet people who think as creatively as he does.

Q: You mentioned that your relationship with Community Housing Partners is pivoting this semester because the coronavirus has put a temporary damper on hands-on learning. What projects might that entail?

A: We’re playing it by ear and figuring out how to work with Community Housing Partners in other capacities. For instance, we’re developing a data science project to analyze anonymized demographic information collected by low-income housing providers on standardized federal forms. It’s basically analyzing PDFs using machine-learning techniques, so we can do it remotely.

Compiling that information allows us to see who is ready to move out of a rental property and into homeownership. It’s one way to help people out of poverty. We’re starting with Virginia. If we can solve the problem here, it could have a really big impact beyond our state. 

Q: From an energy efficiency and human-scale perspective, what overall grade would you give the buildings on the Virginia Tech campus?

A: I’m not going to touch that one. I will say that Virginia Tech has a pretty comprehensive sustainability program that is student-driven and faculty-supported.

Q: Can you offer an example? 

A: Yes. One of our graduate students wrote a proposal for a project to address classroom space needs. At several places across campus, students can now sit outside at covered metal tables where part of the canopy is a solar panel that powers a charging station. It’s renewable infrastructure that contributes to energy literacy because everybody can see the electricity source. A local company designed them with the university colors and logo.  

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.