A CASE in Point

The headquarters on Wall Street for the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) were quiet on a cold, rainy day shortly before the holidays, but the-ever innovative Anna Dyson was typing away. It’s been a busy time for Dyson and the multi-institutional and professional research collaborative she helped create. It was only a few weeks ago that CASE was launched at a gala reception. In addition, the end of the pilot phase of the center’s Built Ecologies graduate degree program just came to its conclusion.

A collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, and the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), in Manhattan, CASE is dedicated to architectural innovation and is itself an innovative marriage of academia and industry. “It’s very difficult to pursue certain kinds of research within the budgetary and time constraints of practice,” Dyson explains. “SOM really had the ambition to push performance issues and get into next generations of systems development. They just cannot do that within those constraints.”

Carl Galioto runs SOM’s New York technical group and is the driver behind the firm’s partnership with RPI. As he tells it, implementing a full-scale research and development department isn’t the most practical option for a major firm, but neither is sitting back and waiting for products to enter the marketplace. His vision, he says, was to “look for an academic partner and have the research stimulated by students and faculty, particularly by an institution that has robust laboratory facilities for physical testing.” RPI and the new Built Ecologies program were particularly attractive, because of their focus on sustainable design and their geographic proximity to New York City.

Through academic research areas such as Next Generation High-Efficiency Solar Power Systems for Building Envelopes and Advanced EcoCeramic Structural Systems among others, students are free to think big and make use of the SOM’s considerable design resources. The firm, meanwhile, is bound to get plenty of credit as an industry leader (as if it needs more). Eventually, SOM will test technologies that emerge from CASE on its own projects. The program currently has funding to build up two of its research areas. According to Dyson, “The real milestone for us is getting into a kind of organizational structure that really allows for the large-scale building and testing of systems prototypes across the board.”

The success of CASE will be measured, in large part, by the creativity of students seeking degrees in Built Ecologies. True to its interdisciplinary nature, the program is named after an art exhibit that RPI’s experimental research engine MATERIALAB proposed for the Young Architects Program at P.S.1. in 2001. Dyson stresses that that the design studio program is a merging of arts and sciences, which centers on the notion that the built environment is an integrated element of the natural environment. “We’re not proposing anything called green or ecological design,” she explains. “That would put a qualifier on some design being green over others and that’s not really the kind of discussion we’re interested in. We’re much more interested in the idea that everything has ecological relationships.” It is within that greater complexity that issues of sustainability can be identified and addressed.

Students from the pilot phase came from architecture and engineering backgrounds. Now that the program is coming into full swing Dyson hopes to attract students with humanities backgrounds, too. (Built Ecologies is accepting applicants for fall 2009, and interested candidates are encouraged to apply now.)

The partnership between so many players of so many different backgrounds—students, faculty, industry partners—offers fertile ground for imagining the next generation of building practices and systems. “We’re fighting the academy in some respects as a discipline because we may be one of the few generalists in the academy left and there’s so much of an impetus and a bias towards greater specialization in critical styles of knowledge,” says Dyson. “You really have to be aware of the fact that to reduce complexity is maybe to miss the point all together.”

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