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A New Material World

These innovations that would seem to be the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago are becoming a reality because of the advent of new, thinner, “smarter” materials. These new materials, many of which are being developed and researched at Rensselaer, are allowing researchers to “shrink” existing technologies to make new compact systems that are more efficient. Solar panels that are typically 4 feet by 4 feet long, for instance, have recently been pared down to one square centimeter to be used in Dyson’s window system.

Van Dessel, who specializes in advanced materials, also is investigating ways to design houses using rigidified inflatable structures (RIS) technology. RISs are thin, flexible plastic membranes that harden after they are deployed with pressure, similar to blowing up a balloon. Once they harden, the pressure is released, leaving a thin, rigid composite. Van Dessel is working with researchers in engineering to examine ways to construct walls and roofs that will include honeycomb structures, tubular walls, and various ways to fill cavities within them.

Building Out

In his nearly four decades of involvement at Rensselaer as a student and alumnus, professor and dean of architecture, vice president of student life, and now vice president of institute advancement, David Haviland ’64 has seen firsthand how the School of Architecture has evolved and grown into the forward-thinking school it is today.

“One of the most important differences in the 40 years I’ve been here is that the faculty today is much more diverse in its intellectual interests. The number of faculty has grown and we have added those who teach and do research in areas such as acoustics, lighting, and building conservation. So, I would say, it’s become a fully realized school of architecture over that long span,” Haviland says.

Some “specialty courses” have become full-fledged graduate programs and centers, such as the LRC, which Haviland, as dean, led in establishing in 1988. Since then, the LRC has built an international reputation to become the world’s largest university-based center for lighting research and education. The LRC and its researchers have been the focus of several features in the Rensselaer magazine, most recently in the June 2002 issue.

The Sounds of Architecture

The first-of-its kind certificate program in acoustics was established at the school in 1998 by Christopher Jaffe ’49, a recognized leader in acoustic design. Since then, the program has been transformed into a dynamic graduate curriculum offering master’s and doctoral degrees with studies in architectural acoustics. Balfour’s goal is to make this area of architecture study equally as influential as the LRC. Rendell Torres, director of the acoustics graduate program, has led that charge.

The acoustics research lab is a central component of the acoustics program at Rensselaer. Here, students use computer models and a hemi-anechoic, or nearly echo-free, chamber to research how building designs and materials affect sound performance. “With this technology, students improve the practical use of design,” says Torres, who will be leaving his post as director to devote more time to teaching and research. Mendel Kleiner from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has assumed the position beginning this fall.

Last year a Rensselaer team of graduate students and researchers investigated how the design of classroom and workspaces can affect how easily students hear and understand what is being said. The research, featured in the October 2001 issue of Discover magazine, focuses on an area of architecture that is paid little attention by most traditional designers: the listening environment itself and the variable acoustics in a given structure, Torres says.

The program also emphasizes research related to auralization, or “virtual acoustics,” the acoustical counterpart to visualization. For example, this involves recreating and transmitting sound from the best acoustically built structures into your headset, laptop, or television in any location in the world.

“For instance, if you were in a small studio in Australia, you would be able to listen to an orchestra performing at the Boston Symphony Hall with exactly the same sound characteristics as if you were sitting inside the symphony hall itself,” says Torres.
“The work we’re doing to improve sound quality and transmission is absolutely distinct from most every other university,” Balfour says. “If we can learn to do this, remote communications in every field — not just architecture — will be much more effective.”

Building on the Past

As the 90-year-old architecture school blazes a trail to the future, it is reaffirming its longstanding commitment to community involvement.

“Many schools of architecture across the world have little engagement with the community. But engagement with the community is essential if architecture is to work,” says Frances Bronet, professor of architecture, who has been at Rensselaer for 18 years.

This summer, Bronet assigned her first-year students to design a skateboard park for children in Troy. The students based their initial model on videos of parks and other spaces used by the best skateboarders in the world. But when the children saw the new student-designed skateboard park, they said the space was too challenging for them. As a result, the students modified the park significantly.

“It’s the community that ultimately challenges our work. So, the real goal is how can the architect pursue a project that challenges conventional frameworks and make it work over a long period of time with a sustained commitment to community. That has always been a challenge that we willingly have taken on,” Bronet says.

Architecture students at Rensselaer also see exciting implications of their work on a global scale. Last year, as part of an international competition for Architecture for Humanity, two Rensselaer students won honors for a mobile HIV/AIDS unit designed to be deployed in sub-Saharan Africa.

The design, submitted last December by fifth-year architecture students Brendan Harnett and Michelle Myers, was named “Best Student Entry” and was awarded second place overall. Their unit, called B.O.C.S.M.E.D.S (Basic Operable Container System for Medical Equipment Distribution and Supply), was selected from more than 522 teams representing 50 nations.

“Our goal was to provide the health-care professionals and volunteers with a scalable, adaptable, and highly mobile set of building blocks with which they can create temporary clinics specific to their requirements and the needs of the people they are treating,” Harnett says.

“Architecture can help define and transform culture to improve the human condition by improving the environment in which people live,” Balfour says. “We give our students both the theoretical understanding and practical skills that enable them to make what they imagine while at the same time cultivating in them an awareness of the political, social, and ethical implications of the discipline. And, we are doing this through the command of technology.”

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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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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