Category: Environment & Sustainability


Beautiful “ferry” trees at Avebury in the UK’s Wiltshire region.

Last week I crossed the threshold into a brave new world. I traveled over to the UK, my soon-to-be home, twice to learn more about the place.

First, to celebrate Ireland’s bank holiday weekend, my partner Aongus and I flew to Bath. We rented a car so we could visit Stonehenge, the flight of locks at Devizes (the Caen Hill flight of the Kennet and Avon canal), Avebury which is similar to Stonehenge but larger, and the picturesque village of Castle Combe. In the city of Bath, we toured the ruins of the old Roman baths, the bell tower of Bath Abbey, Royal Crescent and the townhouse museum at One Royal Crescent, and weir and the Putney Bridge, as well as getting Watsu treatments and a night time soak with spectacular views from the rooftop pool at the Thermal Spa.

Stonehenge was spectacular, but Avebury had an even more mystical feel. The majestic old fairy trees with their thick boughs and knotted roots make it feel as if you’re stepping foot into C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or the Wonderland Lewis Carroll created for Alice. (Both of these were English writers, who could well have stood beneath the same magical trees we found here.) Wikipedia provides a quick reference to the meaning of ferry trees: “Many types of trees found in the Celtic nations are considered to be sacred, whether as symbols, or due to medicinal properties, or because they are seen as the abode of particular nature spirits. Historically and in folklore, the respect given to trees varies in different parts of the Celtic world.”


Meeting with UCL’s Professor Nick Tyler.

After flying home, I flew back to London on short notice for four meetings on Wednesday–because my new colleagues at University College London had time to meet me and it was “review week” at DIT.

These meetings were in preparation for the start of my new Marie Curie research fellowship in January. The EU is providing funding for me to work at UCL for two years, to further upgrade my skills in educational research. During my short visit, I met with my primary supervisor Professor Nick Tyler who has an amazing record of research in transportation engineering and educational innovation. I also met with my secondary supervisor, Professor John Mitchell, who directs UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education (CEE). I also got to meet with the newest member of CEE’s research team, Dr. Inês Direito, who I’ll get to collaborate with in projects. All this in addition to visiting UCL’s European Office and quick chats with two other colleagues, Emanuela Tilley and Dr. Arnie McKinley, both originally from my own side of the Atlantic.

Overall it was a very productive day, and I even got two grant proposals read in route.

Across the span of the week, I had great experiences at work and at play. I can’t wait to get back to London, Bath, and the Wiltshire region of England for more learning, and more novel adventures.


Arriving on Inishbofin by ferry from the coast of Ireland near Clifton, we anticipated a unique combination of rest, relaxation, and outdoor adventure. Aongus and I had spent a weekend here one year ago, and we were blessed with beautiful skies and sunshine then (enough, by the way, to turn my Irishman purple). Early this summer we returned, hoping for a sequel of delightful adventures. And that's exactly what we found.

Now don't get me wrong, our cycling and sunbathing were at times delayed by sprinkles. You'll see from the photos that windbreakers were needed, even in June. But our three days in this little paradise couldn't have been lovelier. The weather and pace of life were just right. And a happily exhausted duo we were by the end of our cycling day, toasting life over pints of Guinness.

Inishbofin island is home to a hundred or so folks and it boasts a few hotels, restaurants, and pubs, along with a couple tiny little stores. It's reached by passenger ferry.

When visiting, it's wise to bring most of what you'll need over from the mainland, and to plan activities and wardrobes around clouds and rain.

If the sun shines, it's a bonus.

Discovering your own little patch of beach and some sunshine is a delight beyond compare. Add in a hike, a bicycling adventure, and some yoga on a cliff overlooking the beach and a normal day becomes shear magic.

The peace and tranquillity you may find on this little island can soothe a weary soul. The sunshine, though fleeting, will call you back again and again.



The chaplaincy of Dublin Institute of Technology, Fr. Alan Hilliard, Susie Keegan, and Suzanne Greene the administrative assistant, assist DIT’s visiting students, who come from all around the world. The chaplains organize trips and events in addition to providing helpful advice and pastoral assistance. 

So far this year, I’ve helped out with two events they organised–a trad music event at the back room of the Cobblestone pub, and a day trip to Glendalough national park and ancient monastic city.

img_5149-1The Dublin sun shone again today, making the Botanical Garden ideal to visit. The Victorian-age green houses, sprawling green lawns, and falling leaves drew crowds of enthusiastic park-goers. We strolled the paths, viewed plants from around the world (including many sorts of Venus fly-trap), enjoyed the sensations and colors,  and played in mountains of leaves.

img_5164Then, Aongus and I took a break in the Garden cafe for lunch, and wrapped up our trip to this part of town with a jaunt into the adjacent Glasnevin Cemetary for a stroll, a history lesson, and coffee (with his beloved “coffee slice”). By sunset, when we left the Cemetary, the gate back into the Garden was locked, so we took the side exit out, beside The Gravediggers pub and stopped in for a pint and a half of Guinness.

I’m the half pint!

 Catherine Simpson is here at DIT tonight describing the research she does as a Forensic Engineer. You can also call her an expert in thermal modeling and a Building Services Engineer.

She can make digital models of buildings and predict their future energy performance. She can also go into a functioning building to identify, analyze, and rectify errors in thermal performance. She says that very often, buildings do not end up performing the way experts predicted. These are skills she uses:




Catherine says Forensic Engineers must avoid using clues as if they were actual evidence (of the problem and its causes). These are clues: complaints, anecdotes, consultant reports, BMS data, ad hoc solutions, staff theories, and staff observations. On the other hand, these are useful forms of evidence:


Catherine models problems digitally and physically. She also develops theories that she can combine to test her theories:


Catherine gave an example of a shopping mall that had a very windy atrium and a very steep heating bill. No one could identify the causes of these problems. But after six years experiencing these problems, the owners called her in.

With careful analysis of data she collected (using dozens of different routes, including studying air flow by blowing bubbles in crowded spaces where smoke tests couldn’t be used) she identified a number of problems. One was a poorly placed rotisserie oven that was triggering vents to open. Another problem was that the building controls “thought” the building’s vents were completely closed when many were only partially closed.

Catherine devised a £50k solution to closing the vents in winter that is saving the owner £60k every month, in heat alone. There were reduced wind drafts and reduced tenant complaints. She says it saved about £500k in capital and restored people’s confidence in the facility.

Here’s one tool she uses to measure air speed:

She also uses thermal imaging to study air infiltration, like so:



We use this kind of technology in our Energy Cube project. This is a picture from that class last week:

Catherine’s work involves fixing problems and also providing expert witness testimony. Forensic engineering seems fascinating! Catherine is a veritable Nancy Drew.

Forensic engineering, she says, is like a jigsaw. You’re given clues, you find evidence, simulation gives context, you test theories, and ultimately prove a solution. She obviously loves her job!

Orange trees along the entry IPS.

Orange trees along the entry IPS.

My Friday visit to the architecture school of the Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) was icing on the cake after a week of engineering interviews, conducted across the bay from Lisbon at Escola Superior de Tecnologia do Barreiro (a branch of the Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal, where I had interviewed students their experiences as engineering students as part of my Marie Curie research project).

You might recall that I delivered workshops at IPS and IST as a Fulbright scholar, back in 2013 (click here for more).

For a little more fun on my last day in Lisbon on this trip, I took the Metro over to IST. There, I visited the first year studio to hear student teams present their urban analyses of Lisbon districts. I toured the 2nd-5th year studios with my gracious faculty hosts and I wrapped up the afternoon discussing recent work with PhD students from the Architecture Research Group who I’d met on my previous trip to Portugal. The doctoral students — Maria Bacharel Carreira, Luisa Cannas da Silva, Mafalda Panheco, and Sajjad Nazidizaji — and thier professor Teresa Valsassina Heitor took me for a beer at the end of the day.

IPS's Escola Superior de Tecnologia do Barreiro

IPS’s Escola Superior de Tecnologia do Barreiro (image from

Many thanks to my colleagues at IPS, Bill Williams and Raquel Barreira, who helped arrange and conduct interviews. Thanks also to the ISP students who provided interviews and the IST teachers and students who shared their work with me. I can’t wait to visit again!

Braving Dublin’s blustery weather today (a mix of winds, snow flurries, and showers that would make my blizard-ravaged friends back in the USA weep–for joy), I made a field trip to northwest side of Dublin to visit Dr. Larry McNutt and the Institute of Technology in Blanchardstown (ITB). Larry has expertise in engineering and education–and he does sociological research to boot.

ITB, DIT, and the Institute of Technology in Tallah (ITT) are in the process of merging, with the goal of becoming Ireland’s first Technological University (TU). Larry is part of the “TU4Dublin” team that’s managing the merger.

Today, Larry and I spent a couple of hours discussing ways to improve the experience for third-level learners (i.e., college students). We both aim to make higher education more interesting and effective by helping post-secondary teachers hone their skills in teaching.

Before our meeting, Larry gave me a tour of ITB, an energy-efficient campus constructed since 1999. Because the focus of my PhD dissertation was green buildings constructed by post-secondary institutions in the USA, I was quite interested in seeing the design of the ITB campus and its individual buildings.
I also enjoyed discussing:
*educational improvement initiatives Larry is involved with.
*the design of various degree programs for teachers and for students.
*hot cross buns (I’d never seen one before today)

It’s a banner day for me when my interests in sustainable architecture, educational planning, and engineering education (plus food!?!) weave together so nicely. Imagine finding a person who can discuss all these topics with ease.

Larry McNutt is such a person. I look forward to bumping into him around TU-Dublin again soon.


A colleague from Virginia Beach, J. Timothy Cole, and I published a chapter in the recently-released textbook called:

Marketing the Green School: Form, Function, and the Future

Our chapter is called:

Enhancing Building Performance and Environmental Learning: A Case Study of Virginia Beach City Public Schools

This abstract summarizes the article so you can tell if you’d like to read it:

“School buildings directly affect their natural and socio-cultural environments. They do this through their construction, maintenance, operation, and demolition. Most of the school buildings we have in stock today drain natural resources and inadvertently perpetuate a culture of environmental, social, and long-term economic ignorance and misuse. When approached thoughtfully, however, the design of school buildings can help inform and enrich society. Well-designed buildings can impart environmental knowledge and values. They can foster more effective behaviors among the people who learn in and from them. Effectively designed buildings can also conserve natural resources and—at their best—even help replenish the natural environment. For many school leaders today, participation in green certification programs represents one important step toward improved building and learning performance. This chapter provides a case study of successful learning approaches developed by Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS).”

Here’s the introduction:

“Aimed toward educators and school administrators, this chapter provides a broad overview of design issues related to sustainability. It proffers concrete examples drawn from Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) to enhance performance at the level of the building, classroom, district, and region. VBCPS’s environmental approach integrates educational planning with facilities planning. Its facilities department has been driving change in school design, classroom pedagogy, purchasing, transportation, and even regional design standards.

The examples in this chapter provide a snapshot of one moment in an ongoing process. They illustrate how one innovative school system is generating and applying new knowledge for the benefit of its buildings’ users, the local public, the wider education community, and the world. Overall, VBCPS strives to provide the best possible environments for learning teaching and living. Its efforts include:

• Integrating environmental issues throughout the curriculum
• Preparing students to bring new knowledge into the community and share it with their families and employers
• Introducing new construction techniques to the region
• Encouraging architects and builders to reach for higher standards
• Monitoring the division’s environmental performance and continually seeking to improve
• Disseminating their research and techniques for broad adaption
• Monitoring its own (and its community’s) energy and waste flows
• Striving to achieve net-zero carbon emission
In this chapter, we provide rationale and theoretical underpinnings for green school design, and we share successful practices developed by VBCPS. Knowledge in the realm of environmental design and education is continually evolving. As such, any list of “best practices” is in constant flux. In writing this chapter, we seek to provide a description of some of the best practices we have discovered and/or created up to this point in time.

Most environmentalists have adopted the World Commission on Environment and Development’s (1987) definition of sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 43). The “green building” movement fosters new strategies to help overcome outdated construction practices that require vast material resources and cause tremendous waste and pollution. Today, North America’s over-reliance on cheap energy has reached crisis proportions (Steffen, 2008; Wackernagel & Rees, 1996). All told, buildings consume 65% of the electric power used in the United States (Landsmark, 2008). They use 36% of all energy used and 30% of all raw materials. Buildings are responsible for half of greenhouse emissions from the US (Gifford, n.d.; Udall & Schendler, 2005). Educational facilities have been among the worst, although higher education buildings seem to waste more energy than K-12 because control systems are looser (Leslie & Fretwell, 1996).

Recently, VBCPS analyzed all sources of emissions within its control, using data from 2006-2010. It found that even though its overall energy consumption had steadily declined across the five-year period, its building-related activity still accounted for 65% of VBCPS’s overall emissions. Its second largest source of emissions related to transporting people and goods. Its calculations considered electricity use, combustion from paper/stationary waste, and losses related to the transmission and distribution of electrical power. School leaders are working to address the division’s primary sources of emissions, through integrated strategies that involve enhanced building performance, revised vehicle fleet policies, and more informed commuting habits of students and employees. Leaders are also creating strategies to control the 1% of its green house gas emissions that resulted from solid waste, refrigerants, chemicals, and wastewater.”

Fionnuala advising an Energy Cube team.

Fionnuala advising an Energy Cube team.

Nowadays when you arrive in DIT’s four-year engineering program, you will complete three group-based design projects prior to selecting a specific engineering major: a bridge design project (to familiarize you with civil and structural engineering), a RoboSumo project (to learn about robotics, electrical, and electronic engineering, and programming), and an “Energy Cube” project (as an introduction to mechanical, product, and building services engineering).

The Energy Cube project is currently coordinated by a diverse and multi-disciplinary group of teachers. Fionnuala Farrell is a product design and manufacturing engineer, John Nolan is an expert in engineering drawing, and Micheal O’Flaherty is a building services engineer. 

This team built a geodesic dome for their Energy Cube.

This team built a geodesic dome for their Energy Cube.

I’ve been assisting them and contributing the perspective of an architect. I’m not involved in grading, since I’m interviewing some of the students for my research, but I attend classes to better understand what it’s like to learn and teach engineering. 

Fortunately, I know how to do all the parts involved in this project: designing buildings, identifying client needs, defining product evaluation criteria, collaborating, calculating volumes, making scale translations, predicting thermal performance using mathematical calculations, designing the lighting scheme, building models, testing performance, keeping records, and presenting work in writing as well as verbally.

For the students, though, this combination is a tall order!  They have a total of six sessions, four hours each (on Friday afternoons!?!!) to design, build, test, and present their Energy Cubes. Whew!

Lecturers Fionnuala Farrell, John Nolan, and Michael O'Flaherty surveying results of "the build."

Lecturers Fionnuala Farrell, John Nolan, and Micheal O’Flaherty surveying results of “the build.”

Moreover, they are working in assigned (rather than self-selected) groups of four. Learning to work with strangers isn’t always easy. They’ve done an admirable job.

Our second of four sets of students will test their cubes later today. I’ve posted photos of what the Energy Cube build looked like last week.

The Virginia chapter of the America Institute of Architects hosts a conference every November that is called “ArchExchange East.”  It’s a fabulous learning experience for me and my students.  Most of our department attends the event.  I’ve included photos of some highlights.


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