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“The $255 million south campus project represents, by significant proportions, the largest-scale development/redevelopment work in campus history,” says Claude Rounds, vice president for administration. In addition to the two buildings, the project includes a new gateway to campus, a 510-car parking garage, a boiler plant, a chiller plant, and an underground electrical substation, as well as significant improvements to College Avenue and other infrastructure projects.

Rittelmann and his firm were hired “not because he and several of the architects are alumni, but because they are recognized nationally as leaders in the design of academic research, biotechnology, and bioscience buildings,” Rounds says.

Nevertheless, the alumni connection adds a dimension of attentiveness and personal involvement that might be otherwise lacking, he says.

As Rensselaer moved closer to making its final selection, Rittelmann invited another Rensselaer alumnus, Peter Bohlin ’58, FAIA, of the Pittsburgh-based firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, to partner with Burt Hill on the biotechnology center. The two firms have worked together very successfully on more than a dozen projects and, Rittelmann says, “Peter Bohlin is one of the shining stars out of Rensselaer’s School of Architecture. We thought there was no better place to apply this winning team than to our own alma mater.”

One of their noteworthy collaborations, the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, has received a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects, the Tucker Award for Design Excellence, and a Silver Medal from the Pennsylvania Society of Architects.

For Rounds, the partnership has been a remarkable success. “The relationship between the firms is so strong, so seamless, you would never know there were two [separate] firms involved,” he says. In addition to Rittelmann (principal-in-charge) and Bohlin (design architect), other alumni on the project include Bohlin Cywinski Jackson architects Jon Jackson ’73 and Michael Maiese ’90, and Burt Hill’s Harry Gordon ’73, FAIA.

Rittelmann currently serves as chairman of the Research Advisory Board at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is U.S. representative to the International Union of Architects for Science and Technology. He has also served as U.S. representative to the International Energy Agency. He writes and lectures extensively on subjects ranging from architectural education to energy-efficient design and trends in scientific research. In 1986 he was made a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA), an honor conferred on only 5 percent of AIA members.

“But, sir, I’m an architect!”

Rittelmann’s path from Rensselaer and back again began at sea.

An ROTC student at Rensselaer, Rittelmann entered the Navy in 1961. “As soon as I reported aboard ship and the skipper looked at my records, he said, ‘Ah, from RPI. You’re going into engineering.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m an architect, not an engineer.’ ”

But there was no arguing with the skipper. Rittelmann was sent off to the Navy’s engineering schools, an experience, he says, that gave him an excellent foundation in mechanical engineering. By the time he left the Navy in 1964, he was chief engineer for a destroyer squadron with the Pacific fleet.

His dual background in architecture and engineering, coupled with a love of research, all came together three years later when John Kosar, a high school classmate, encouraged Rittelmann to return to Butler, the western Pennsylvania town where he grew up, and join the firm that would soon bear his name.

By now Rittelmann had married and started a family. He and his wife Jane, an artist, accepted Kosar’s offer and returned to Butler — where they still make their home — to raise their four children. Rittelmann joined the practice in 1967 and founded Burt Hill’s research group shortly thereafter.

“As soon as I started to practice architecture,” Rittelmann recalls, “I became aware of how wasteful buildings were. Conservation was drummed into us in the Navy, not so much to save money, as to extend cruising range of the fleet, so a lot of naval engineering was oriented toward conservation techniques.”

Rittelmann had been greatly influenced by the Paley Report, a 1952 government document that warned of the nation’s growing reliance on imported oil and the related economic dangers. The report confirmed for him the importance of pursuing energy research.

He began to explore alternate energy sources — particularly solar and wind — and, under his leadership, the firm developed an international reputation for pioneering energy-conscious design and research.

“There was a point in the 1970s when we did more contracted research than any other architectural-engineering firm in the world,” he recalls. The firm is still counted among the leaders performing contracted energy research for the federal government.

Early clients included the Energy Research and Development Administration, which later became the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), then DOE itself, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national laboratories. During those early years, Rittelmann was frequently called on to help develop codes and standards for emerging technologies.

The firm soon realized they needed people with engineering skills to balance their architectural strengths. In 1978 Rittelmann began assembling an engineering department and integrated design became a reality at Burt Hill. The results were felt almost immediately.

The Comstock Center office building in Pittsburgh, designed by Burt Hill in the early 1980s, introduced several innovative energy-efficient technologies and won a national Energy Award from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Energy consumption of the Comstock Center was 40 percent below the previous “minimum” established for major buildings.

“Our research proved that buildings could be a whole lot better, and I assumed that energy was going to be a major criterion in the selection of architects for the rest of the century,” Rittelmann says. “Well, I was wrong.” The public did not share his enthusiasm for conservation, and in the 1980s federal funds for energy research began to dry up.

In parallel with research, the firm turned to highly technical work, especially for health-care facilities, where they established a reputation for solving unprecedented problems.

For example, Rittelmann’s group devised a shielding method using finite element analysis to allow the first-ever installation of three MRIs in one building at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a feat the manufacturer said was impossible (and one that would later benefit Rensselaer).

An even greater challenge was to develop shielding for the first cyclotron in the world to be installed on an upper floor.

Researchers at UPMC needed a cyclotron on site to generate radioactive isotopes for use in a PET (positron emission tomography) scanner. Rittelmann’s team installed the cyclotron on the building’s seventh floor and placed a specially designed shield, which includes seven feet of borated concrete, on the floor below. Moreover, since the scanner uses radioactive isotopes with half-lives measured in seconds, the Burt Hill team designed lead-lined pneumatic tubing to carry the isotope directly from the cyclotron into the patient.

In the mid-1980s, their accomplishments in specialized health-care work took Rittelmann and the firm into the area of highly complex research laboratories.

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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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