Innovation: Advanced high-performance building themes gleaned from AEI student competition

BY Burns Mechanical IN Construction

The Papadakis Integrated Science Building, Drexel University. Photo courtesy Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.

The Papadakis Integrated Science Building, Drexel University, where the student competition was held. Photo credit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.

I recently had the privilege of serving on the jury of the annual student architectural engineering competition held by the Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) of ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers, at Drexel University in Philadelphia.  The AEI held the student competition, which included the brightest student representation of accredited architectural engineering programs from around the country, to showcase the value of collaboration, competition, and peer review.

I found it refreshing to unplug from day-to-day responsibilities and open my mind to such bright young students’ perspectives — all the more valuable because they’re unencumbered by previous notions imposed by traditional ways of getting things done. Frankly I was blown away by some of their ideas and could envision which leading edge industry trends have the best opportunity for permanently taking hold.

The gist of the competition was for each student team to provide their own proposal on how to design and build the same building, a 30-story high rise located in San Francisco. I noted three themes surrounding high performance buildings that came to light through their work.

  1. Integrated thought and crossing of traditional discipline boundaries.
  2. Combined heat and power – distributed power generation systems.
  3. Focus on carbon footprint for selection of materials, construction techniques, energy decisions, and transportation issues.

What was the most surprising to me was how well the students challenged preconceived thinking in our industry. As someone with an engineering background trained to balance new ideas with practical problem solving, I know pie in the sky when I see it.  But frankly their innovative ideas were compelling and at times stunning. Some examples include:

  • A well-developed case for building the high rise out of wood. I’ve heard this topic discussed in sustainable building circles, and these students researched it and provided supporting analysis in response to our questions of seismic and fire resistance, life cycle costs, and general structural integrity.
  • Extensive use of natural ventilation (as opposed to mechanical) – a very practical idea in the temperate climate of San Francisco. The students conceived details to introduce fresh air through the envelope and to deliver it directly to occupied areas.  This approach required an advanced level of cross-disciplinary discussion and was really interesting.
  • Alternative energy sources, including a novel plan for converting commercial food waste into energy. Their extremely compelling case relied on a cleverly conceived anaerobic digestion plant located within the bowels of the building (pun intended). They seemingly had all of the bases covered, including determining sources of the food waste and how to minimize the impacts of deliveries on local traffic.
  • The use of cross-disciplined construction techniques.  One team developed a proposal to create a nearby interdisciplinary office and fabrication shop.  Their plan included a co-located multi-trade BIM studio. From a common fabrication shop, preassembled components could be fabricated in a clean manufacturing type of environment and quickly hoisted into place on site. The team demonstrated how their integrated construction planning could trim six to eight months from the construction schedule, thereby reducing costs and generating earlier revenue for the developer.

It’s quite invigorating to step back and have an experience that serves to de-familiarize from ordinary ways of thinking. While the industry gives more lip service than action to many of these great ideas in construction, I’m thrilled that the country’s best and brightest future leaders are hard at work setting a path for the future of high performance buildings.