MIT is also working on the human factor in the energy conservation equation, with a major current focus being a collaborative drive to cut energy usage in China.

To be sure, sophisticated technologies are almost bound to be a part of any MIT-connected project. Members of the Institute’s Building Technologies Group – a joint enterprise of the architecture, mechanical, and civil and environmental engineering departments – are working with counterparts at Beijing’s Tsinghua University to plan new apartment complexes for that northern Chinese metropolis. The group is using tools like high-end computer systems that can model air movements through a multi-building apartment complex, allowing builders to site those structures so as to take maximal advantage of natural air flows.

When it comes to implementing the plans, though, it’s all pretty low-tech. “We wanted simple solutions that can be implemented right away,” notes Lara Greden, an architecture Ph.D. candidate who until recently was part of the China project. Thus, the U.S.-Chinese team limits itself to off-the-shelf materials, and to measures like bunching windows on a structure’s south side.

Even so, the approach promises meaty payoffs: some simple innovations could lead to apartments that consume up to 40 percent less energy than conventional units with the same dimensions.

One reason such a big number may be achievable is evolving government policies. “Heat used to be a kind of welfare benefit in China,” notes Greden. With the government subsidizing the coal industry, “there was no incentive to limit heating” – and inefficient energy systems were common in buildings of all types.

That’s changing. A shift to marketbased pricing for energy actually helped cause a drop in China’s energy use in the late 1990s, though residential use kept rising – in part because of air-conditioning’s spread to northerly climes like Beijing.

For Greden, a mechanical engineer by training, the technical side of energy conservation is one interest. She contributed energy-saving innovations to a design for economical housing that recently won a prestigious architecture design competition. But she also cares about policy issues; in China, her main focus was how to get people to conserve. And through a series of surveys, she turned up some intriguing ideas.

On average, her respondents were okay with a roughly 10 percent premium on the price of a Chinese version of a condo if the payback came quickly. “The acceptable payback period was three-to-five years, which is also the kind of figure that surveys find in the U.S.,” she says.

Still, in China as in the U.S., few consumers have an avowedly environmental perspective. “Most aren’t inclined to be green just for the sake of being green,” says Greden.

One conclusion she drew: try to promote conservation from the start. “If you design them right, you ensure a market for energy efficient homes.”

She also concluded that creating teams across national boundaries really works. “If your country’s already dealt with certain issues,” she notes, “you may be able to spare your colleagues going through the exact same process you did.”