A study by researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology found that automated insulating window shades have shown significant potential for reducing energy consumption. The research, which took place at Willis Tower, demonstrates that these automated shades can effectively cut energy usage by approximately 25% and offer a return on investment within 3 to 5 years.

These findings present a promising pathway for enhancing sustainability and energy efficiency in architectural design; in regions with climates similar to that of Chicago, temperature regulation accounts for a substantial portion (~30-40% of a building’s total energy consumption).

The research team, led by Assistant Professor of Architectural Engineering Mohammad Heidarinejad, specifically focused on the often overlooked role of window shades in energy-saving solutions. The results underscore the significant impact of insulating window shades when integrated with an automated control system, leading to a remarkable reduction in energy usage during both heating and cooling seasons.

An infrared image shows the temperature of the window with (left) and without (right) insulating shades. (Image: Illinois Institute of Technology)

Heidarinejad emphasizes that addressing energy waste in existing buildings poses a significant challenge, as implementing energy-saving technologies is more flexible in new construction projects.

“While designing a new building allows for greater freedom in adopting energy-saving technologies, existing buildings face more limited options,” explains Heidarinejad.

The study, conducted over a ten-month period in collaboration with Parata Solutions LLC and Amatis Controls at Willis Tower, evaluated three different control strategies for Parata’s patented insulating shades: manual control, a predefined schedule, and a sensor-based system that factors in outdoor conditions and room occupancy.

Up to a 25% decrease in energy consumption

The findings were highly compelling, showcasing a remarkable 25% decrease in energy consumption during both heating and cooling seasons when the motorized shades were utilized. Moreover, the study revealed an overwhelmingly positive response from office users, with 80% expressing a preference for the new shades over the traditional blinds.

Christopher Nurre, CEO of Parata Solutions LLC, lauded the collaboration with Illinois Tech and said, “Working with Mohammad Heidarinejad and his team at the Illinois Institute of Technology was a game-changer for our company. Their rigorous field measurements helped validate the effectiveness of our shade system in significantly reducing energy usage while offering occupants and building owners a preferred solution over the incumbent technology.”

In addition to contributing to sustainable architectural solutions, the study provided a valuable real-world learning experience for the students at Illinois Tech who participated in the project. Heidarinejad stressed the importance of students gaining practical exposure through collaborative projects.

“Our students were involved in various aspects, such as instrumentation, data collection, and modeling, and their contributions directly impacted the actual study,” said Heidarinejad. “It was essential for them to learn how to collaborate on real-world projects.”

Further research is planned to explore the efficacy of these innovative window shades under different conditions, such as in buildings utilizing natural gas, in diverse climate zones, or with windows facing various orientations. Brent Stephens, a co-principal investigator on the project and the Arthur W. Hill Endowed Chair in Sustainability, highlighted how this innovative research, with immediate practical applications, perfectly aligns with Illinois Tech’s mission.

“Beyond the exciting findings of energy savings and the favorable payback period, this project exemplifies the type of industry-relevant research we strive for—a combination of field measurements and computer simulations to evaluate a unique energy-saving strategy in one of the most renowned buildings worldwide,” said Stephens.

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