ULI members tour of the Disney Research China (DRC) building in Shanghai.

ULI members tour the Disney Research China (DRC) building in Shanghai.

The Disney Research China building in Shanghai. (Disney Research China)

The Disney Research China building in Shanghai. (Disney Research China)

On March 26 and April 19, 2015, ULI members were given tours of the Disney Research China (DRC) building in Shanghai by DRC researchers Ben Schwegler, Helen Chen, Kevin Hsu, and Yan-ping Wang, who discussed the lab’s focus on diverse aspects of integrated infrastructure. ULI gratefully acknowledges the input of Kevin Hsu, Helen Chen, and Yan-ping Wang in writing this article.

Disney Research China (DRC) is part of an international network of Disney Research labs launched in 2008 to honor Walt Disney’s legacy of innovation by researching novel technologies and deploying them on a global scale. In China, DRC states as its mission to “develop scientific and engineering knowledge of the natural synergies in urban infrastructure to create better urban design.”

Located in Shanghai’s Xuhui District, DRC’s flagship is a modest four-story structure on a tree-lined lane, with just 5,400 square feet (500 sq m) of gross floor area. Yet enclosed within its high-performance exterior envelope (the “passive systems”) is a package of advanced technologies (the “active systems”), including an integrated building management system (IBMS), renewable energy generation, and energy storage. Energy services are procured through a pioneering building performance contract, and the entire facility was designed using a building information modeling (BIM) strategy that unifies the design, construction, and operation of the building. Though the building is still in its pilot stages and experimental systems are coming online, it appears to hold great promise.

DRC’s passive and active systems. (Disney Research China)

DRC’s passive and active systems. (Disney Research China)


Building Information Modeling

The DRC used BIM to complete the building renovation under a fast-track mode, consolidating the physical and functional properties of all the building’s systems (active, passive, structural, communication, etc.) onto a common digital platform. Thus, it provided a consistent and comprehensive set of information to the multiple stakeholders that would design, build, and manage the building over its life cycle.

It was not lost on the visitors that the building was a retrofit, rather than a new construction, which highlights the opportunity for many buildings in Shanghai that could be similarly upgraded to become more energy efficient while preserving each building’s historical structure and facade.

Performance Contracting

DRC has adopted a creative performance contracting strategy that leases equipment instead of purchasing it, thereby allowing Disney to avoid a significant portion of capital costs. The idea is, for instance, to subscribe to lighting services rather than to buy lighting hardware, or to procure air conditioning rather than to purchase chillers. Over a five-year contract period, the system will secure superior energy performance and greater comfort, in accordance with detailed performance specifications.

Central to performance contracting is the delineation of passive and active systems. The passive systems contractor guarantees the insulation value and air-tightness of the building envelope, on the basis of which the active systems contractor will guarantee that the building will meet the energy performance target.

Significantly, the performance contractor finances, engineers, procures, constructs, and maintains the active systems and—upon fulfilling the performance guarantees—recovers its investment from payments over the contract period. Thus, the performance contracting model transforms the energy equipment vendor into an energy service provider while aligning the long-term interests of the client and the contractor in the process.

As building energy systems become smarter and more complex, and as energy rates become more dynamic, the sophistication required to manage those systems will increase significantly. Performance contracting, which delivers energy services while assuming the risks and complexities of energy management, could become the new paradigm.

Integrated Building Management System

To supply the metaphorical brain and central nervous system of the building, the IBMS coordinates the active systems so they optimize energy consumption, thermal comfort, and visual comfort. The IBMS does this by analyzing real-time data from 390 sensors that monitor 13 metrics of indoor comfort—such as temperature, humidity, daylight, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), occupancy, etc.—across 144 lighting zones and 27 energy subsystems. The IBMS also coordinates a 2.4-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic array, which serves as the primary power supply for the plug loads on the third floor of the building. The array uses a 6.8-kilowatt-hour battery as a buffer and the grid as the backup. Support for renewable energy is part of Disney’s corporate commitment to social responsibility.


The integrated building management system.  (Disney Research China)

The integrated building management system.
(Disney Research China)

Building and District Interface

Advanced algorithms built into the IBMS allow the building to monitor and fine-tune its active systems and eventually to predict its own energy and resource use. In addition to savings at the building level, if the facility were plugged into a larger network, this predictive ability would enable the building to synchronize energy production, consumption, and storage with district energy systems. Such an ability drives huge efficiencies in energy flows.

Indeed, such synchronization between buildings and infrastructure is envisioned for the Shanghai Disneyland Resort (SDR). The SDR will serve as a test-bed for the innovations that are being developed by DRC, including integrated district infrastructure anchored by a combined cooling, heating, and power (CCHP) system. DRC’s research indicates that an optimal physical size for the efficient operation of urban infrastructure systems, including heating and chilled water production and distribution, as well as biowaste and wastewater treatment, is on a scale similar to that of Disney’s resorts. Shanghai Disneyland, for instance, covers 2.7 square miles (7 sq km).


Integrated infrastructure: interaction between different elements. (Disney Research China)

Integrated infrastructure: interaction between different elements. (Disney Research China)

District-scale infrastructure that channels energy, water, and material flows into a common platform can promote the sharing and circular use of resources. Here are some examples:

  • Waste heat from the CCHP can be used to preheat domestic hot water.
  • Biowaste can produce biofuels for heating or transport.
  • Greywater reuse can reduce fresh water consumption and its attendant embodied energy.
  • Urban forestry cultivation can mitigate urban heat island effects, clean the air to improve health, and sequester carbon.
  • Renewable energy and battery storage can be tapped during a power outage.

These synergies not only enhance resource efficiency, but also urban ecosystem health and climate resilience. An integrated district infrastructure thus provides numerous opportunities to harness the “natural synergies” among buildings and different infrastructure systems.

Relevance to China

The strategies being researched by DRC can be applied not only in Disney resorts—which are basically miniature cities with accommodations, attractions, transportation, and commerce—but also in communities and downtowns located elsewhere in China.

China’s “new urbanization” emphasizes quality over quantity, regeneration over expansion, and densification over sprawl. As cities continue to grow denser, the challenges posed by energy, water, waste, congestion, pollution, health, and productivity will become more acute. Global climate change, moreover, will require enhanced energy, resource, and climate resilience, in addition to adaptive and mitigation measures.

DRC offers a holistic solution predicated on better passive and active building systems, better passive (urban design), and better active (infrastructure) urban systems, thereby harnessing the “natural synergies” between them and delivering a new paradigm with a new financing model.

Center for International Collaboration

DRC collaborates with top local and international universities, such as Tongji, Jiaotong, Fudan, and Stanford, as well as companies such as United Technologies, Lutron, and Saint Gobain, among others. Their teams participate in a variety of innovative demonstration projects that apply advanced computational methods to optimize the use of energy resources and materials—an exciting confluence of “natural synergies” indeed.

James S. Lee, AIA, LEED-AP, is the CEO of iContinuum Group Ltd.