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The Technology to Explore

Rapid advances in technology have also found their way into the Architecture Design Teaching and Production Studio, known as Studio 305, established in 2000. Here, graduates and undergraduates explore the design of everything from buildings and landscapes to vast urban infrastructures. Students work on a laser-cutting machine that follows computer-created designs to carve three-dimensional objects out of foam or wood. A motorized curtain closes off one end of the room to create a theater where students can present their projects on video to as many as 50 teachers and peers. A professional-quality video-editing station allows students to create simulated tours of their proposed buildings, or even show their projects within a video image of an actual site.

Although these advanced design techniques and tools are changing the ways students create and learn, most studio projects require students to move back and forth between computational modes and older modes, such as physical models and hand-drawn sketches, says Ken Warriner, associate professor of architecture. “All of these techniques encourage students to see different perspectives of the same design, and show the relationships between computational and physical environments. Sketching by hand and constructing models out of wood and other materials allow students to become intimately and physically involved in how elements interlock and fit together,” he says.

Building a Better World

Today’s architecture students will build a world in which integrating societal and technological needs, affordability, and energy efficiency will be paramount. A step toward that world is being taken by Anna Dyson, assistant professor of architecture. She co-founded MATERIALAB, a Rensselaer consortium of architects, engineers, economists, and social theorists.

The consortium is focused on prototyping building systems that create a sustainable built environment, increase comfort in living and working space, and reduce utility costs by maximizing safe onsite by maximizing safe onsite energy generation using natural sources.

Most of us would appreciate sunlight filtering through our office space without the resulting heat beating down on our desktops on a hot July afternoon or the piercing glare across the computer screen. Working with MATERIALAB, Dyson has co-developed the first-of-its-kind solar technology for windows that will allow us to throw out those less than worthy Venetian blinds. The Dynamic Solar Window System (DSWS) blocks the harshest rays — and the heat generated — while allowing the most pleasing daylight to stay in your workspace.

Designed to function beyond a mere shading system, the DSWS uses a newly developed solar-energy technology to convert the sun’s light and diverted heat into storable energy that also can be used to efficiently heat, cool, and light the same office building.

Faculty, together with graduate and undergraduate students from seven departments, are uniquely involved in every aspect of the project, from building its parts to coming up with ideas to market the product.

The DSWS is made of clear plastic panels that fit in between two panes of glass. On each panel are dozens of small, pyramid-shaped units, or “modules,” made from semi-translucent plastic, that track the motion of the sun. Sensors, embedded in the walls or the roof, ensure that the units are always facing the sun to capture all incoming rays while at the same time deflect harsh, unwanted rays in a building’s interior space.

Each unit also holds a miniaturized photovoltaic (PV), or solar-cell, device used to collect light and heat that is then transferred into useable energy to run the motors, also embedded in the building’s interior walls. The remaining energy is used for heat, air conditioning, and artificial lighting.

The system, which can be incorporated into existing commercial buildings as well as new ones, could become a significant part in the development of an overall energy plan to reduce dependence on the national power grid, Dyson says. This could avert widespread blackouts, such as the historic one in August, when more than 50 million people in eight states and part of Canada lost power in a matter of seconds.

“The DSWS could save businesses — the biggest consumers of energy — untold utility costs and significantly reduce our need for fossil fuels,” she adds.

To integrate the lighting component into the system, Dyson is working with a team of researchers at the School of Architecture’s Lighting Research Center (LRC). The team, headed by LRC Director of Research Nadarajah Narendran, is developing advanced LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and laser diode technologies that could ultimately replace today’s conventional bulbs. Already used in traffic signals, automotive indicator lighting, and exit signs, LEDs use far less energy and last longer than conventional lighting.

While LED light sources can outperform the incandescent bulb in terms of energy use and life, they currently are too expensive to replace incandescent light bulbs, says Yutao Zhou, LRC research specialist who is working with Dyson.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Narendran, Zhou, and their LRC colleagues are collaborating with researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara to develop a highly efficient solid-state lighting system for general illumination.

“This kind of lighting is a critical component for systems, such as the one Anna Dyson is involved in building, to work seamlessly and effectively,” Narendran says. “Solid-state light sources are poised to change the way we light interior spaces and will reduce the overall energy consumptions of buildings.”

Other architecture researchers at Rensselaer are finding new ways to combine home comfort with energy conservation. Steven Van Dessel, assistant professor of architecture, is developing the Active Building Envelope (ABE). The patented system incorporates solar-cell and thermoelectric technologies to turn the walls of a home into an “intelligent” heating and cooling system.

Imagine heat silently radiating from the walls of your home on a frosty night and cool air coming from the same seamless source on a scorching summer day. This, without ever having to touch a thermostat, check the pilot light in the furnace, or hear the constant droning of the air conditioner. As with Dyson’s window system, the integrated ABE system would operate using an endless supply of cheap energy — the sun. Collaborating with other Rensselaer faculty and with industry partners, Van Dessel plans to build a prototype soon.

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Rensselaer Magazine: Fall 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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