School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture
What is your educational and professional background?
I am an engineer by training, but maybe one of non-typical professional inclinations. I completed my BASc and MScE in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in 2006 and 2009 respectively. I then went on to receive a PhD in Engineering at the University of Cambridge in 2014 before becoming a senior researcher at the Institute of Technology in Architecture and Future Cities Laboratory of ETH Zurich, managing the 3for2 Beyond Efficiency building design project in Singapore between 2014 and 2017.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in science and design and an inquisitive nature to go with it. In fact, I really can’t remember a time in my youth when I wasn’t somehow fixated on questioning everything, tinkering and trying to make things around me look better and be more useful. I did have a future profession in mind when I was young. I always wanted to grow up to design, build and fly aircraft. This ambition actually led me to study engineering in the first place, and it took me all the way to working for Airbus in Hamburg, Germany during a gap year I took in 2004. This experience living in Germany turned out to be pivotal for me, though, as it reshaped my career interests in a completely new direction.
If you would have contrasted the average Northern European building in 2004 with the Canadian one, you might have seen a clear distinction in the general level of technology adoption for the purposes of making a building more livable, healthy and above-all, energy-efficient. It seemed at that time that Germany and its neighbours were miles ahead of Canada in terms of deploying highly-insulating building facades, solar photovoltaic and thermal systems, thermal mass and selective materials, etc. The often proclaimed explanation of this dichotomy — that “energy prices in Canada are just too cheap to warrant action” — also didn’t seem to quite address the full story. It occurred to me that, to properly understand the reasons why some building stocks’ had become more technology sophisticated than others over the 20th century would require me to gain an understanding of the complex interactions between science, economics, design, policy and culture in the built environment. This naturally brought me into the folds of academic research, where I’ve remained since.
UBC sits amongst the largest and best universities in Canada, in a global top-tier city. Scholastically, this makes working at UBC incredibly fulfilling as an academic in the building sciences. To understand how to innately dissect or design a ‘sustainable’ building requires one to have a knowledgeable perspective, or at least solicit such a perspective, on matters of design, engineering, human behavior, economics and ecology. The vast portfolio of UBC’s academic programmes and studentship makes it easy for me to meet and engage with bright peers and students that hail from around the world and bring with them a necessary diversity in personal experiences and professional backgrounds to carry out world-leading research in building systems.;
That Vancouver is home to UBC is also particularly important for developing a globally-relevant research program on building systems and the growth of cities. Vancouver seems to have become a city that is somewhat mired by its own success. On one hand, Vancouver’s adoption of a unique urban identity in the 1960s, much to the credit of its residents seeded the city that Vancouver is known for today: a global model for dense, community-centric urban living with a deep connection to the natural environment. On the other hand, the world-leading livability of Vancouver has helped in driving considerable outside interest, and investment, into the city. Within one generation, Vancouver has gone from being one of the most unaffordable cities to live in Canada, to one of the most unaffordable in the world.
To study how Vancouver navigates the next era of its residential planning and community development will be of research interest to the increasing number of ‘global’ cities, particularly in the Asia Pacific, that are at risk of developing the same affordability crises as Vancouver holds today — and vice versa.
How do you hope your work will impact society/students?
Some of the most ground-breaking and potentially world-changing research advances in the building and urban sciences of the past 20 years have been created, or directly influenced, by “multi-disciplinary” individuals and teams. These are those agents of change that possess the breadth of interest and intelligence to master not only one field of expertise but several, ranging from engineering and computer science, to architecture and biology. History will dictate whether I will have contributed in kind to this community of thought provokers. At the very least, however, I hope to help future generations of architects and engineers develop the toolsets needed to look for insight beyond their degree title.
How do you think your field will be different 100 years from now?
I view the overall decentralization and automation of the city, driven by increasingly vast troves of data, will be the biggest driver of change in the building science research field over the next century. This will not replace efforts to address climate change mitigation and adaption, which remain the field’s most important challenges, but will certainly broaden the list of disciplines engaged with addressing them.
For the architectural and engineering practice, however, I see the question-of-the-century is whether and how to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) into the world of the design architect and engineer, or if preventing AI from affecting the design world will even be possible? It seems not unlikely that by the end of this century, there may be machine learning algorithms that could outright design entire buildings, and not simply by copying-and-pasting prior human-designed spaces. A future ‘intelligent’ algorithm may be able to devise complete building information models (BIMs) using historical data and basic user inputs to find an optimized balance between occupant requirements, construction costs, constructability, and environmental impact. It lends the question of whether, in a 100-years’ time, one might not hire an architect or engineer to design a building, but perhaps only a computer scientist?
What item could you not live without?
I will openly admit that I could not live without some device that connects me to the internet. The world is just too big, and there’s still too much too learn.
What are you passionate about outside work?
Aside from spending time with my family and friends, few things make me happier than cooking a nice meal, brewing a fine beer and building something with my own hands.