NAPHC2019 Interview: Kimberly Llewellyn of Mitsubishi Electric’s Performance Construction Team

December 02, 2019

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Kimberly Llewellyn is a building science powerhouse, innovator, and connector. Technical lead of Mitsubishi Electric’s Performance Construction Team, her motto is, “Balance theory and practice, keep your boots dirty, hold skilled trades in high regard and refuse to gloss over inconvenient field realities.” At next week’s North American Passive House Conference 2019 in DC, Kimberley will be teaching a pre-conference workshop, “Current Best Practice For Utilization Of Heat Pumps In PHIUS Compliant Projects” and presenting a core conference session, “A Tale of Four Cities: A Global Take on Product Development, Load Calcs,” with Sayo Okada of Passive House Institute Japan. I spoke with Kimberly on Monday about her work with Mitsubishi Electric, her perspectives on manufacturer innovation and the North American Passive House market, and her upcoming talks at NAPHC2019.

Zack Semke: To start, can you tell us about your role with Mitsubishi Electric?

Kimberly Llewellyn: I’m responsible for providing training content for high-performance buildings. In particular, applications and knowledge around loads and ventilation loads for higher performing buildings. My second function is to assist in management of our industry research project portfolio, so all of the research projects that we support with utilities, with national labs, with other jurisdictions or industry groups. I help evaluate and help choose which projects we support and track those so that we make good choices.

So it’s training and industry research, and then I assist our product development teams. To use the hackneyed analogy of “you need to know where the puck is going….” If we understand where the high-performance building market is going, then that helps us bring products to market in a more timely fashion. That’s been a real challenge, I think, for a lot of the manufacturers, including Mitsubishi, so I’m working a lot with the residential team and starting to work with the commercial team to be that knowledge transfer conduit for what people are saying and doing and what it looks like is coming down the pipeline.

I’m also on ASHRAE (American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) 62.2, I track ASHRAE 62.1, and am a voting member of the Passive Building Design Committee 227P.

Zack: It sounds to me like you’re not only anticipating where the puck is going, but you’re also pushing the puck down the ice.

Kimberly: Absolutely.

Zack: Part of what you’re doing is you’re nurturing and creating a market by educating about high-performance building, right?

Kimberly: Yeah. I like that.

Zack: It’s really important work. When we think about and look at clean energy and the clean energy transition and the power of innovation, and all of these little, micro-innovations throughout the ecosystem of the clean energy industry, all those add up to, over time, lower cost of clean energy. I think that the manufacturing community has a really important role to play in that same kind of dynamic in high-performance building. I think it’s really important work.

Kimberly: Thank you.

I feel that it's hugely important that, as a community and as an industry, we start doing better by our skilled trades. We would be served so well to bring them into our early stages of design.

Zack: Can you talk a little bit more about where you all at Mitsubishi see yourselves in this movement towards high-performance buildings in North America? Do you guys see yourselves as in the pole position? How do you see, collectively, your role in this transforming market?

Kimberly: Well, I think that we have to, first of all, acknowledge that Mitsubishi Electric as a global company has a declaration in its bylaws that says that we’re committed to global stewardship and responsible manufacturing. We don’t get a lot of press about it here, but, internationally, Mitsubishi wins global stewardship awards for being a leader in that arena.

What’s so interesting is that that doesn’t really show up here in the US, but we’re closing that gap. The US market is viewed as sort of the Wild West. So in terms of how at least our team views Mitsubishi’s position, it would be not quite authentic to say that I think we hold the pole position in terms of bringing products to market as quickly as the market is asking for them. Agility is not necessarily the strong point of a lot of big companies. However, I think that we’re making up for that lag through industry engagement and support. Mitsubishi is hands down not rivaled in their commitment to supporting contractors, utilities, builders, architects…anybody along the project team timeline…anybody in the construction process. We’re so engaged and that’s where we really hold the pole position. Sometimes the product development timelines are not within our control, so we step up on the fronts where those things are within our control, like the engagement and training.

I feel that it’s hugely important that, as a community and as an industry, we start doing better by our skilled trades, and so I’m actively working on ways to do that within the company, but I think there are things that all of us can do in our day-to-day practice to get our skilled trades, who are often not tapped for their often extensive knowledge until the very end of a project, where we hand them directives. We would be served so well to bring them into our early stages of design. I think it’s so important.

My background is chemistry and thermodynamics, so it’s pretty much in my bones to walk around almost like an infrared-hygrothermal camera monitor.

Zack: I know you’re a CPHC (certified Passive House consultant). How do you see that training and background playing into the work that you’re doing now?

Kimberly: I came from a building science background, and was already working in building failure consulting, so I had a good grasp of how buildings work. Behind that, my background is chemistry and thermodynamics, so it’s pretty much in my bones to walk around almost like an infrared-hygrothermal camera monitor. I am that, I think.

[Laughter]

Zack: I think I just got the title of this interview figured out.

[Laughter]

Kimberly: So the training…I’d say the main reason I stay connected to the training and other practicing Passive House consultants is so that I understand what their needs are in terms of the mechanical equipment—expanded performance data, the inputs. I talk a lot with the folks at PHIUS (Passive House Institute United States) and at PHI (Passive House Institute) in terms of what their ideal specification look like for heat pumps, where they’re seeing the biggest energy use impact from mechanical systems.

I want, from a programmatic position, to support the programs, and then I also want to support our practicing designers and support their process, to make that easier. That means trying to get better expanded performance data, for example.

Zack: That makes sense. Can you tell me about your presentation for the conference: “A Tale of Four Cities?” What will you be sharing?

Kimberly: That has been a fantastic experience. I have teamed up with Sayo Okada, who is a practicing architect out of Boston.

Zack: Right, and she’s involved with Passive House Institute Japan, is that right?

Kimberly: Yes. She’s a trainer for them, I think. I mentioned I’ve been really involved in supporting our product development team, and after listening to several conversations with our Japanese factory engineers, I really got this sense that the US and Japanese markets are worlds apart in some ways. There are these inherent cultural differences, in particular, and then design differences, and differences in terms of expectations on the part of consumers/occupants that set these markets worlds apart. But, again, from a product development standpoint, Passive House designs and buildings offer this opportunity when we start to see loads converge not just across markets, but across climate zones. And when we start to see the loads of different spaces—when you start to see them looking very similar, and the spread of the ranges in loads for similar buildings in different locations, when those ranges get more and more narrow—what happens is our product requests start becoming more coherent. Again, that has been one of the biggest hurdles to product development for the US market. I guess I haven’t stated this yet, but we get so many different US requests on the product development front that product development requests for the US market get tuned out and deprioritized. So this is a real opportunity to provide a much narrower, more specific, coherent, clearer set of product requests.

We’ve got to understand what the mass market is going to look like in five to seven years, and I have a lot of confidence that it’s going to look like Passive House buildings coast-to-coast.

Zack: That’s exciting. So if I understand correctly, the envelope-first approach of Passive House helps to bring that range you’re talking about into a more coherent range? It’s facilitated by the narrowing of extremes in loads that Passive House design brings about. Is that right?

Kimberly: That’s right. You’ve got it. So that’s the main piece of it, and then you can add the ventilation piece, as well. In terms of ventilation, we’re not asking for a dozen different types of ventilation products. The Passive House community and projects probably need two or three, tops; and even one agile unit could probably meet most project needs. So I find it really exciting because I have acknowledged this as one of the largest, highest product development hurdles, and so when we know that our product development timelines can be at the very shortest two to three years or more like five to seven, we’ve got to understand what the mass market is going to look like in five to seven years, and I have a lot of confidence that it’s going to look like Passive House buildings coast-to-coast. So that gives me confidence to make these very narrow product requests and say: “This is it.”

Zack: Awesome. So what are the four cities that are going to be in the presentation?

Kimberly: We did sister cities in terms of fairly close matches climate-wise, although it’s impossible to do that exactly, but really close. So we’ve got: Austin and Tokyo, and then we’ve got Boston and Sapporo. And Sayo is just a pleasure to work with and just brought a whole different perspective to this. I knew it was there, but I didn’t know what it was. As an example, she points out how common it is for people to sit on floors in Japan, and we don’t even think about that. But we would have to if we had a whole house, for example, or a larger apartment and we were using maybe a single-ducted system. Those really low loads correspond to really low flows, so we would necessarily need to take the registers into account so that we got velocities at the terminal grilles up high enough to provide enough mixing or air movement in the space. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but you need it to be more than you might in a Western design. That’s one example.

Another example is just the acceptability of very wide interior conditions in terms of both dry bulb and relative humidity.

Zack: Right. Different expectations.

Kimberly: Yeah. So that’s one of the topics, but I’m also orchestrating a day-long heat pump training in the pre-conference. With this heat pump daylong training that we’re doing on the fifth of December, I’ve made sure to have an installation section that will be presented by a construction person—by a contractor, by a tradesperson.

Zack: Fantastic. I have one last question. What role do you hope that the Passive House Accelerator will play in the Passive House/high-performance building space moving forward? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Kimberly: My hope is probably twofold. I really like the idea that you are creating a platform for information exchange. I’m hoping for a robust arena for ideas and information exchange. The second thing that I’m really hoping for is a bipartisan arena. I would love for the two communities—which certainly overlap some but could do more—to come together. I think that would be really healthy and productive, so I’m looking forward to the bipartisan nature of the Accelerator.

Author

Zachary Semke
Zachary Semke
Zack Semke is Director of Passive House Accelerator, VP of Marketing with Zola Windows, and owner of Semke Studio, a marketing consultancy…

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