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Left Brain/Right Brain

This progression from contracted research to health care to laboratories reinforced Rittelmann’s conviction that the best work can be done only when teams of designers and technicians are aligned in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

“We push integrated design hard at Burt Hill,” Rittelmann says. “I want the engineers and architects both sitting at the table during schematic design. It’s very difficult to incorporate engineering creativity in problem solving if the engineers aren’t in on the early design work. We sell ourselves on that concept. We have in-house engineering because we do technically complicated buildings.”

But integration of design and technical skills is not easy to establish.

For centuries, Rittelmann explains, structures were designed and built by people known as “master builders” who understood equally the principles of architecture and engineering. But as technology assumed greater sophistication, the role and education of artist and technician began to diverge.

The École des Beaux-Arts (founded 1648 in Paris) became the model for architecture students. Classes emphasized the study and imitation of the classical arts, creativity was stressed, and students were encouraged to devise several potential solutions to a problem.

Engineers, on the other hand, were educated in the manner of the École Polytechnique (founded 1794), where great mathematicians like Joseph Fourier held sway. This model focused on the scientific method and arriving at the one “right” answer.

Rittelmann is concerned that today’s universities are not developing the “whole” architect. The perception that a person is either a “creative type” or a “technical type” persists. He has found that some young architects go out of their way to hide their technical abilities. “But,” he says, “what I look for in an applicant to our firm is balanced right-brain, left-brain activity.”

Rittelmann’s ideal would be a new breed of master builder — someone who can imagine a wonderful building and build it. Someone who can manage people and complex projects, and who has a refined sense of what is beautiful yet is firmly grounded in what works. That might mean earning degrees in both architecture and engineering, he says, “because, of all the professions you can imagine, architecture demands a balance of creative and technical skills.”

Knee-deep in mud

Construction of the biotechnology center has offered Rittelmann a unique opportunity to act on this conviction. Every two weeks, in good weather and bad, Rittelmann dons a hard hat, and leads 12 Rensselaer students — six architects and six civil engineers — in a unique hands-on course called Tracking the Biotechnology Center. Now in its fifth semester, the two-credit course takes students through the entire process — from landing the contract and interviewing scientists to final occupancy.

George List, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering, Bruce Kunkel ’71, manager of planning and space utilization, and Mark Mistur ’83, clinical associate professor of architecture, helped design the course.

“I thought the biotechnology center would be a wonderful opportunity for students to see the whole process, including the struggles and successes that result when architects and engineers work together — and to see it under the leadership of a person who really understands that perfectly,” Mistur says. “So I called Dick Rittelmann after he won the contract and I suggested the course. Well, he had come to the same conclusion on his own — it was already part of his contract with Rensselaer!”

Each semester begins with a construction safety class taught by McCarthy Construction. Rittelmann then uses the building itself as his text, with the subject matter whatever is happening at the time. “Last winter and spring there were days we were knee-deep in ice-cold mud learning about such things as concrete pouring and steel framing,” Rittelmann says. “Now we’ll be able to show the mechanical and electrical and plumbing systems going in.”

Value Added

Like a mantra, Rittelmann repeats a statement that he has posted in all the firm’s offices: “Nothing is quite so embarrassing as an elegant solution to the wrong problem.”

“One of the major values of an architect is helping the client determine what to build,” Rittelmann says. “That’s why we put so much effort into planning and programming. I spend more time studying the sciences than I do studying architecture at this point.”

One question Rittelmann helped Rensselaer resolve was whether to install a 900- megahertz (MHz) nuclear magnetic resonance facility. Information provided by Rittelmann about the advantages, disadvantages, and costs of constructing and maintaining such a facility led the building’s planners to opt instead for three smaller magnets (one 750 MHz, one 600 MHz, and one 300 MHz), “a much more sensible way to go,” he says.

Rittelmann’s expertise in laboratory design and construction resulted in a building that is as efficient and cost-conscious as it is supportive of leading-edge research, Rounds says. For example, the facility has been designed almost as though it were two separate buildings. Offices are arranged in a three-story wing facing 15th Street and a four-story wing facing south. The laboratory areas, stacked one above the other, are grouped in the building’s four-story core.

Laboratory space is very expensive to build and must meet stringent code requirements. The decision to separate the two kinds of space resulted in many cost advantages, Rounds says.

Other savings are accomplished in the research areas as well. “Standards require that labs be fed with 100 percent outside air,” Rittelmann says, “with a minimum of six air changes an hour.” Heat-recovery systems, fairly standard now in the industry, will trap the heat from the laboratories as the air is being exhausted. Lighting also will be the most current and energy efficient, Rittelmann says.

But it is in the dramatic glass atrium separating the laboratory and office spaces along the full length of the L-shaped building where Rittelmann’s years of energy-conscious design will be most evident. “The glass was designed very carefully. The atrium will require no heating or cooling year-round,” he says, other than three small spot-heating units located at the main doors to the outside.

Despite Troy’s cold winters, overheating is the biggest challenge. Natural ventilation through a series of louvers concealed by soffits along the outside of the building will allow a substantial amount of natural ventilation, while the smoke evacuation fans, required in all atria, will vent the space.

The atrium design also illustrates the team’s keen understanding of the human dimensions of architecture. Research buildings can become places people are almost afraid to enter, Rittelmann says. “The main purpose of the atrium is communication and interaction by the researchers in the building and anyone just passing through.” By offering protection from the weather and a direct route to the south campus, the atrium will draw people into the building.

Bringing it all home

Dick Rittelmann will turn 65 in December, and, although the word retirement is not part of his vocabulary or his plans for the future, he has stepped away from the day-to-day management of the firm in order to spend more time doing what he loves best — working with clients and designing.

“For all my talk about technology, my first love is still design,” he says. “But for me, that means design that takes its strength or genesis from technology.”

The milestone also encourages him to reflect on the significance of his work at Rensselaer. “In a way you could call this a dénouement,” he says. “Pulling together all that I’ve done and putting it here. If this had come along when I was 40 it would have been important, but somehow different. At this age and level of experience, completing this project for my alma mater is very, very satisfying.”

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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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