Designing a Healthier and Energy-Efficient Air Distribution System



On average, Americans spend 87% of their time inside buildings1, and indoor air quality (IAQ) in buildings has a direct effect on human health2. Buildings can even develop "sick building syndrome," a situation in which IAQ is so poor that building occupants become ill. In the workplace this can cause absenteeism and, as a result, decreased productivity3. Sick building syndrome is caused by the presence of chemical compounds or pathogens that can affect human health and comfort. These include volatile organic compounds, bacteria, viruses, mold, and dust4 as well as internal nuisance odors and the heat, moisture, and carbon dioxide generated by occupants.

Even when building owners, architects, and interior designers select and install building materials and interior furnishings with minimal hazardous chemical compounds, IAQ can be an issue. Currently, the most common mitigation strategy is ventilating the building interior with fresh outdoor air. Building codes mandate minimum ventilation thresholds based on building type and space usage.

Buildings need to be healthy, but they also need to be comfortable. Modern heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems keep temperature and humidity levels in the human comfort range, and condition the fresh outdoor air required for occupant health. Mechanical engineers and HVAC system designers have the challenge of balancing proper ventilation for occupant health with the need to minimize the energy required for space conditioning.

Many air distribution systems use metal ductwork to move conditioned air between the outdoors, the HVAC system and conditioning equipment, and indoor spaces. These systems have many issues that impact energy use, occupant comfort, and indoor air quality. For example:

  • Ducting can leak, allowing contaminants into the airstream or increasing the energy use required to condition the leaked air.
  • Conditioned air can change temperature as it travels through the air distribution system, which wastes energy.
  • Improper placement of the supply and return air vents can negatively impact air temperature and quality. For example, if the supply air vent is placed near the return air vent, the conditioned air may never reach some spaces in the room.

There is a need for more HVAC system designs that are energy-efficient as well as healthy and comfortable for occupants.



Problem Definition

Identify a specific community impacted by this problem. Describe this stakeholder community and the specific challenges it faces. The community can be a subset of society with specific needs, such as a marginalized population.


The Challenge

Design a novel air distribution system for a small (<50,000 ft2) commercial building within the climate zone of the stakeholder community that will:

  1. Provide proper ventilation to all building occupants.
  2. Maintain occupant comfort (temperature and humidity).
  3. Eliminate IAQ hazards.
  4. Reduce energy use compared to current systems.
  5. Meet the functional needs of the commercial building.

If the stakeholder community exists in many different geographic areas representing multiple climate zones, choose a familiar one.

The response should include:

  • A description of the climate zone and the novel system.
  • A discussion about the implementation of the solution in a hypothetical or existing building within the identified stakeholder community. Potential buildings include small businesses, schools, and community centers. It may be useful to investigate the current air distribution systems within the target building or building type. Keep in mind that the system design could impact the placement of walls and the layout of the existing building, hopefully for the better.
  • A tech-to-market plan for how to apply the solution on an aggregate scale. For example, how to partner with existing companies in the industry to launch the novel air distribution system and how to engage commercial building owners and motivate them to adopt the solution?
  • A description of how the stakeholder community will benefit from the innovative system.



Competing in this challenge is open to student teams currently enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges. See the Terms and Conditions for eligibility requirements. Please note that you must complete your Building Technologies Internship Program (BTIP) application before or at the same time as you submit your idea in order to compete in the JUMP competition.

Teams are required to have representatives from at least two different majors.

Teams that have gender balance, such as an equal number of women and men, will receive more points in the Diversity of Thought category than teams of only one gender. However, gender balance is not required, and teams consisting of only one gender are welcome.

Written responses can be up to five pages, single-spaced, and may be attached as a PDF in the JUMP into STEM response form. Please include a list of references. Appendices are welcome but may not be reviewed by the judges. References and appendices do not count towards the five-page limit.

Submissions should include a project team statement. The statement should describe the perspective or skill that each team member brings to the project. The statement should include a note on the mix of majors, backgrounds, genders, etc., represented on the student team.


Evaluation Criteria

Technical (45%)

  • Impact to reduce energy consumption in buildings.
  • Ability to maximize occupant comfort and/or indoor air quality.
  • Technical potential and merit.
  • Response meets all technical requests of the challenge.

Innovation (35%)

  • Market characterization and readiness for proposed idea.
  • Replicability and scalability.
  • Is the idea unique and/or innovative?

Diversity of Thought (20%)

  • Multidisciplinary team approach (meets requirement for 2 of more majors on a team). Teams should comment on their majors in their project team statement.
  • Gender balance: More points will be awarded to teams that attain even male/female split.
  • Based on the idea submitted, do the students bring a unique perspective to the problem?
    • This includes whether the report presents students' perspective on how their solution will address a need for a society or a subset of society, such as a marginalized population. Do the students understand these stakeholders' needs?
    • This also includes whether the team members bring diverse perspectives to the problem, as identified in the project team statement.


Other Information

Everyone, including students, professors, individuals, innovators, entrepreneurs, or others, are encouraged to vote or comment on the challenge. A few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • All are welcome: All community members are welcome and encouraged to participate in the dialogue.
  • Be respectful: Please, no remarks that are off topic or offensive.
  • No solicitation: Please, no promotions or endorsements for specific commercial services or products.
  • Response time: Where applicable, a JUMP team member will respond to process and program related questions within two business days.



Webinar #1:Webinar #1: Designing A Healthier And Energy-Efficient Air Distribution System with Carol Marriott, ClimateCraft

Webinar #2:Designing A Healthier And Energy-Efficient Air Distribution System with Grant Wheeler, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Webinar #3:Designing A Healthier And Energy-Efficient Air Distribution System with Jeff Munk, Oak Ridge National Laboratory



1: The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants -
2: Indoor Air Quality: What are the trends in indoor air quality and their effects on human health? -
3: The sick building syndrome -
4: See table 1: selected illnesses related to exposure in Buildings ASHRAE Handbook Fundamentals, 2017 page 10.3 -

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