Interview with Runming Yao

Professor at the School of the Built Environment, The University of Reading, UK and Chongqing University, China

Prof. Yao, you are currently involved in 2 major projects, one with The University of Reading in the UK funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and China Natural Science Foundation(NSFC) ; and another major project funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology ( MoST), in affiliation with Chongqing University, China. Please can you tell us more about each of these projects and what they aim to achieve?

These two major projects directly address the shared UK and China societal challenge: improving the living environment whilst saving energy.  The overarching aim of these two research projects is to develop a holistic approach to achieving CO2 reductions associated with providing space heating and cooling whilst satisfying rising thermal condition and wellbeing aspirations. The work will contribute to ‘low carbon city’ research through ongoing dynamic, vigorous, multi-disciplinary China/UK collaboration.

The three-year EPSRC/NSFC funded project is a joint collaboration between UK (University of Cambridge, University of Reading and Loughborough University) and China (Chongqing University and Zhejiang University). We will invent and catalogue climate-responsive, performance-improving re-engineering and refurbishment solutions for heating and cooling and develop an insightful, accessible evidence-based tool to empower decision-makers in the delivery of low carbon heating and cooling in cities.

The MoST funded Four-year project led by Chongqing University involves 21 Chinese institutions including leading universities; research institutions, manufactories, construction industry and property developers. The project aims to gain a comprehensive understanding of climatic responsive demand of heating and cooling in the Yangtze River Valley climate  zone taking into account local residents thermal adaptive behavior and habitat; to develop passive technologies that are suitable to the region; develop high efficient air source heat pumps and systems; develop high efficient heating and air-conditioning terminals and distribution systems; to develop intelligent people-centric operation and monitoring systems; and to demonstrate the technologies in real buildings in the region with integrated passive-active-operative solutions.

The performance of the building engineering solutions will be measured and tested through demonstration buildings located in the Yangtze River Valley region by the end of the project due in 2020.

What do you think the biggest challenges are for young women in engineering?

Gender bias and lack of inspiration might be the biggest challenges. Engineering was thought of as a male-dominated industry. Our society, including the professionals, educators and government should make an effort to inspire the young female generation pursuing engineering. Colleges and Universities may make an effort in recruiting female students in engineering subjects. It would be very helpful if employers provide career-path training specifically for young women professionals and ensure equal opportunities for promotion.

What are engineers doing at the moment that you think hampers our path to a more sustainable future?

Lack of willingness to collaborative work is the biggest hamper. I once worked on a low energy demonstration building project which aimed to achieve energy efficiency by applying natural ventilation systems.  In order to enhance the natural ventilation, the design of wind chimneys was proposed. To achieve the target, dialogues among structure engineers, mechanical engineers and architects was essential. The proposed solution was not favoured by engineers in the team due to the complexity of the integration of the system.

The development of a sustainable built environment requires a solution which is drawn from complex systems that encompass design and management, the integration of technology and its users and an evaluation of the performance of the whole process. Sustainable development, amongst other issues, requires the rapid and successful uptake of technologies and designs in both new construction and refurbishment. The control and management of the integration of the complex interactions of humans, climates, buildings and energy systems is also essential within a context of rapidly evolving financial incentives, regulations and policies which are driving and encouraging changes in environmental engineering. In the past, advanced technologies and methods have been developed in isolation, for example, in urban planning, architectural design, services design, facilities management and construction.  However, it is now necessary to evolve a series of inter-linked systems through genuine interdisciplinary collaboration and dialogue. This will support the development of boundary-spanning methodologies that are capable of measuring, monitoring, managing and directing whole system operations, outputs and impacts. There are two key challenges to the development of such an integrated approach. One is the compartmentation of built-environment professions; such as urban planners, architects and engineers whilst the other is the differing perceptions of sustainability of policy-makers, built-environment professionals, industry stakeholders and end-users. It is important for built environment professionals to overcome these challenges and promote collaborative working between these different constituencies. It is also important to persuade clients that sustainable building design, construction and operation can save money in terms of energy and water consumption that can also result in healthier buildings with a consequent price in productivity.

Is there one thing engineers could do quickly and easily that would make society more sustainable?

I don’t think there is one easy and quick thing that engineers do can make society more sustainable. The successful implementation of a technological or engineering process has been limited by a lack of integration and understanding across various discipline boundaries and between divergent sets of stakeholders. The reframing of engineering solutions of energy efficiency, requires a holistic framework to include the environmental, social and economic dimensions. The transition to a sustainable built environment requires guidance from complex systems that encompass policy and regulation, the integration of technology and its users, and an evaluation of the performance of the whole process. The built environment is regarded as a complex system including multi-elements which interact both directly or indirectly. In the 21st century, engineers need to enrich their knowledge into a wider context. Any invention of engineering solutions need take into account the fundamental elements of environmental, social and economics.

Why did you decide to go into engineering field?

In the early 1980s, I was inspired by ‘building modernization’ and chose the subject of ‘Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning’. I had ambition to design an engineering system for better indoor environment. After a four-year undergraduate study, I realised that excessive use of fossil fuel to create artificial air-conditioned indoor climates would cause severe environmental impact. I decided to extend and deepen my knowledge after a two-year working experience and I pursued further studies (MSc and PhD) in energy efficiency and building environment. I am fortunate to have chosen engineering as my career, and very proud of my chartered Engineer title. I was also open to absorb new knowledge, for example, building physics to complement my engineering background and it greatly benefited my career development.

Do you have a role model in engineering and why?

My role model is Ms Li Efei. She graduated from Leningrad School of Architecture and Engineering in 1958. She was a Chief-Engineer and Master Designer of Heating Ventilation and Air-conditioning systems of the China Architecture and Research Group. I first met her at an international conference when I was a young HVAC graduate engineer. Her Chief Engineer position made me think that women can be leaders in the engineering industry. Her passion for engineering inspired me that there would be a lot to do in the HVAC engineering field in terms improving system performance while creating thermal comfort environment.

Ms Yuanfe Zheng, former Chief Editor of the Chinese Journal of Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning is also the most respected woman in my life. In my early career, when I first presented my paper about the multi-criteria fuzzy decision method to select HVAC equipment on the National Conference of HVAC in China and was challenged by a national renowned chief engineer, Ms Zheng gave a very positive recognition of the method as it is novel and my paper was published in the HVAC journal after peer review. That was my first journal publication. The experience made me think how helpful it would be to the young professionals that inspiration and recognition came from their senior peers.

What do you enjoy most about being an Engineer?

I enjoy being an environmental Engineer, working in the University as an educator and researcher to invent solutions to the delivery of sustainable built environments and improving people’s living conditions. I realise that engineering solutions need to be complemented with other disciplines to achieve the goal. Interdisciplinary approaches are essential in the built environment. Engineers must collaboratively work with urban planners, architects, materials scientists, construction managers and other professionals. I enjoy working at the School of the Built Environment which is a true interdisciplinary orientation workplace. I feel rewarded when I see our next generation professionals enjoy their career and make their contribution to society. I am very happy when I see my work making an impact to the body of knowledge, industry and policy makers.


Professor Runming Yao is a Professor in Energy and Building Environment at the University of Reading and currently second in Chongqing University as the government-appointed Global Expert Professor on a fixed-contract. She is a Founding Director of the Joint International Research Laboratory of Green Buildings and Built Environments, granted by the Ministry of Education, based in Chongqing University. University of Cambridge and University of Reading are two key founding International partners of the Lab. She has a broad research interest in the sustainable built environment with focuses on energy efficiency and environment in buildings.

She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (FCIBSE), a Member of American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (MASHRAE), a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building (FCIOB), and a Fellow of Higher Education Academy (FHA). She sits on of the International Energy Agent (IEA) Panels of Annex 61 and Annex 66; ASHRAE TC2.1 Physiology and Human Environment Committee member; ASHRAE SSPC62.1; Fellow of Chartered Engineering Institute of Building Services Engineers (FCIBSE); CIBSE Guide: Environmental Design, AM11 funding including EPSRC, EUf7, Halton Foundation, RICS Research Trust, BC, FCO.  Currently she is a Principal Investigator of a 125 million Yuan National Key Research and Innovation Project ‘Solutions to Heating and Cooling Buildings in the Yangtze River Region’ funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology. She has published over 110 peer reviewed articles and book chapters. She published four books in the sustainable and green building subject.

She is a peer review College Member of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). She has been a referee for numerous national and international research councils including UK EPSRC, ESRC, Royal Society, Netherlands (NOW), Portugal (FCT). Austria (FWF) and Hong Kong (RGC). She is a Committee Member of the China Green Building Council; and one of the Editors-in-Chief of the Journal of Building Engineering, Elsevier.