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Bridging Cutting-Edge Architecture Design and Sophisticated Techmological Experimentation: The Center for Architecture Science and Ecology

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

7 World Trade Center, 52nd floor
New York City

Friday, November 14, 2008

Good evening.

On behalf of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I am delighted to welcome you, as we celebrate the launch of an ambitious and groundbreaking collaboration — the new Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE), a multi-institutional research and professional collaboration, co-hosted by the oldest private technological university in the United States with global reach and global impact — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the renowned global architectural firm — Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

CASE is an innovative collaboration engaging scientists, engineers, and architects from the professional and academic worlds toward a common goal of redefining how sustainable cities and environments are built. This innovative partnership combines a right-brain emphasis on design, with a left-brain focus on technologically-based environmental sustainability.

This new venture unites diverse approaches to bridge the perceived schism between cutting-edge architectural design, on the one hand, and sophisticated technological experimentation and research on the other. The Center for Architecture Science and Ecology will ensure that the two are seamlessly linked.

Indeed, the CASE mission is to innovate building systems and materials that shift building performance toward sustainable and energy self-sufficient models. Skidmore Owings & Merrill is an ideal partner because, like Rensselaer, it is a leader in innovation. The firm has a long history of creating ecologically sustainable design. The 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China is designed to harvest wind and solar energy, and is considered “net-zero energy.” The building in which we now stand — 7 World Trade Center — is the first Gold LEED certified commercial office building in New York City.

Now, if you look out the windows at the gorgeous panorama of New York City around us, you will get a sense of the extraordinary track record of Rensselaer alumni/ae in engineering innovation.

The Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering marvel when it was completed in 1883. When the designer, John Roebling, was killed during a construction accident, the job was turned over to his son, Washington A. Roebling, an 1857 graduate of Rensselaer, and his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. The towers stand on immense pneumatic foundations, which rest on the riverbed — a technology that was then in its infancy.

Further uptown is the Williamsburg Bridge, the chief engineer for which was Leffert Buck, Rensselaer class of 1868. He set out to build a bridge longer and less costly than the Brooklyn Bridge, so he opted for shorter, lighter cables as well as steel approaches, rather than traditional masonry arches. His design was the first to use all-steel towers on a suspension bridge, which allowed the towers to be taller and the foundations smaller. The Williamsburg Bridge is four-and-a-half feet longer than the Brooklyn Bridge, and, at that time, was the longest in the world. Three other bridges — the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and the Throgs Neck Bridge — also are products of Rensselaer innovation and ingenuity.

In more recent times, Rensselaer alumni/ae have pioneered, or had key design roles in, literal and figurative “bridges to the future” — from the Apollo program, to Internet email, to the Mars Rovers.

Looking to the future, CASE will push the boundaries of environmental performance in building systems, and is expected to have a substantial impact on building construction and operation which account for more than a third of U.S. energy consumption, and nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

I will give three examples of projects that CASE currently is tackling to harness the power of the sun, wind, and water:

  1. Developing dynamic solar facades, which efficiently capture and convert light into electricity, and heat into hot water? Conventional solar energy systems are about 14 percent efficient. This system has a combined heat and power efficiency of nearly 80 percent.
  2. Designing aerodynamically shaped tall buildings that amplify the speed and power of the wind, which is then harnessed in attached wind turbines. Thus, instead of trying to minimize the impact of the wind on a building, the design maximizes and uses it.
  3. Creating dehumidifying systems for hot, humid, drought-stricken climates that not only remove humidity from the building's air, but turn it into potable drinking water. Advances in biotechnology enable architects and engineers to use intelligent desiccant materials to achieve this goal.

In each case, the building becomes a “living” part of its surroundings, working with the environment, rather than against it. This is a remarkable paradigm shift, which adds “environmental sustainability” to the traditional concerns of architects and engineers. This innovative focus will lead, we expect, to the development of new intellectual property, as well.

The CASE initiative is mutually beneficial. It opens doors for Skidmore Owings & Merrill to develop a deeper understanding of emergent technologies, and offers them access to the cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary facilities at Rensselaer, such as the supercomputer in our Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, our Department of Mechanical Engineering's Subsonic Wind Tunnel, and the technologically animated research resources of our new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.

In turn, CASE offers Rensselaer students and faculty unparalleled opportunity to work with leading architects on challenging, high-level, often international projects that deploy next-generation green technologies. The Rensselaer School of Architecture's first-of-its-kind, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary PhD program in Built Ecologies is greatly enhanced by this initiative.

CASE offers both partners opportunities for funding that would not exist for either alone. CASE actually may be thought of as a triad—with the third entity being sponsors that ensure: (1) that these projects are funded, and (2) that CASE is connected with New York State-based manufacturers of new technologies, thus forming an alliance which strengthens the economic engine of New York state. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge four organizations that provide generous support for the work we are doing. They are:

  • The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) — we will be hearing shortly from Mr. Peter Douglas, acting director in Industry Research & Development at NYSERDA.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy (U.S. DOE)
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF), and
  • The New York State Foundation for Science Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR)

Let us show our appreciation for these organizations.

I, also, would like to extend my thanks to several people whose tireless efforts have helped to bring us to this important day:

  • Mr. Carl Galioto, partner-in-charge of New York's technical group at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and
  • Ms. Anna Dyson, associate professor in the Rensselaer School of Architecture, and, now, CASE program director.

You will be hearing from both Mr. (Carl) Galioto and Professor (Anna) Dyson this evening.

  • I, also, want to acknowledge the leadership of Mr. Mark Mistur, acting dean of the Rensselaer School of Architecture, who is serving, this evening, as our Master of Ceremonies.
  • I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge, in particular, the former dean of the Rensselaer School of Architecture, Mr. Alan Balfour. We are pleased that Alan is with us tonight. His visionary approach to architecture, and his willingness to take risks, made him a guiding force behind the development of CASE, as well as the graduate program in Built Ecologies.
  • And, let me also acknowledge our good fortune in welcoming Councilman James Ginnaro from Queens, who has become well-known as the Chairman of the New York City Council on Environmental Protection — and whom we also have asked to say a few words.

Please join me in showing our appreciation.

It is fitting for me to invoke a phrase that Alan Balfour used to use at commencement each year. He referred to the field of architecture as “the Mother of All the Arts.” How true that is! For perhaps no profession integrates art, science, and technology as seamlessly as does architecture. Our new CASE initiative allows us to take that integration one step further — reaching across disciplines and industries, to form a multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary team, which will animate the quest for new knowledge from research, engaged education, and innovation.

In two months, we will have a new administration leading our country. President-Elect Barak Obama's comprehensive “New Energy for America” plan proposed the goal of 10 percent of our electricity to come from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025, as well as converting our manufacturing centers into clean technology leaders.

We are proud that our new joint initiative will help to meet those ambitious national goals. Yet, our work does not end at our borders. CASE is global in its reach and, indeed, Nobel laureate and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called the global reality of sustainable development “our biggest challenge in this new century.”

Rensselaer is proud to join forces with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in meeting that challenge head on.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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