ATA member profile: A window on a life in building efficiency

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A physicist by training, Peter Lyons has spent two and a half decades involved with housing energy efficiency—in particular the role of windows, and windows ratings systems. He talks to Anna Cumming.

After finishing his PhD in cosmic ray astronomy at the University of Tasmania in the early 1980s, ATA member and Canberra branch convenor Peter Lyons made the move to the ANU to work in their very high speed wind tunnel project.

“Some of our work was in collaboration with NASA,” he recalls. “We helped design nose cones for unmanned spacecraft that went to Saturn and Jupiter!”

His involvement with the built environment began as part of the Solarch research group in UNSW’s School of Architecture in 1992. “Headed by Professor John Ballinger and CSIRO, we did the early work on housing energy efficiency that led to NatHERS and other energy rating software tools,” he says.

At the same time, the group got involved with an international collaborative development project on advanced glazing, helping coordinate work that was already going on in research institutions and private industry in ten countries. “That consolidated my interest in windows as an important part of the building envelope and a key factor in whether a building would be energy efficient or not.”

This led to a stint at the University of California at Berkeley where he worked on the connection between windows and thermal comfort.

“Everybody knows that windows in winter can make a space feel cold or hot, because of radiant temperature that is lower or higher than the desired air temperature. I worked on what was to be the beginning of a procedure for rating the thermal comfort impact of windows. Say you’re one to two metres from a window; will you be more or less comfortable than if the window wasn’t there?”

Later, he took up a position with the Australian Window Association as the first manager of the WERS energy rating scheme for residential windows, which was launched in pilot form in 1996.

These days, he runs his own consulting firm, offering design development advice on energy performance to the window and glass industries, full window system modelling, and building energy modelling. “Our clients are mostly designers and specifiers who need help with making decisions about windows, shading, and the combination,” he says.

Peter and his family have lived in a passive solar designed house since the 1980s, and he’s been a member of the Australian and New Zealand Solar Energy Society (now the Smart Energy Council) for years.

“A few years ago I became aware of the ATA—there is quite a crossover in membership between the two groups in Canberra—and I joined because I could see straight away that the ATA was extremely practical.”

He’s now been the ACT branch convenor since 2015. “Our branch is a big group with well-attended meetings, which I look forward to every month.”

Peter says he really enjoys the interaction with other ATA members locally and more broadly, noting that in many cases they are people he’s known professionally for years; further, he says that in Canberra, ATA branch activities often overlap with other professional bodies like the Australian Institute of Architects, allowing satisfying cross fertilisation of ideas.

Peter is fascinated by electric vehicles. “I have a hybrid car, but I realise it’s only a stepping stone. I really look forward to the articles on EVs in ReNew. Anything we all at the ATA can do to try to push the government to speed up adoption of EVs and the inevitable electrification of transport would be a great thing.”

“I really enjoy applying physics and good science to sustainability,” Peter concludes. “For me, the way I do that is through building energy performance, the building envelope—especially windows, which have always fascinated me. I guess I’ll do it until I retire. Even after that, I’ll be a keen ATA member!”

This member profile is published in Renew 143. Buy your copy here.