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Reflections on Indoor Air 2018 and the Contributions of the University of Texas IAQ Program

Indoor Air 2018 was special for me.  Since 1999 I have attended every Indoor Air meeting as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin.  This was my last, as I prepare to take on a new role as H. Chik M. Erzurumlu Dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University.

Indoor Air conferences are the premiere conferences for those of us around the globe who study indoor air quality.  The conference series was started in 1978.  Until 2014 in Hong Kong it was held every three years.  It then went to a two-year cycle, and was just recently held in Philadelphia. The conference generally draws around 1,000 delegates, with perhaps ¼ being graduate students.  The bulk of the remainder are faculty members at universities around the world, researchers in government labs, and a much smaller number of policymakers, industry staff, and consultants.

The University of Texas organized Indoor Air 2011 in Austin.  Two outstanding graduates of UT Austin organized the conference in 2018.  I am pleased and proud of the influence that the indoor air quality program at the University of Texas at Austin has made on our field, and the significant connections that we have made within the field.  The combined attendance (n = 22) of our current team and our graduates at Indoor Air 2018 was equivalent to that of a moderate-sized country, with over 2% of conference delegates sprung from just one program in one academic department at UT Austin.  Our team presented cutting-edge research related to emissions and presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in schools and other buildings, outdoor and indoor ozone concentrations in high schools in Texas, particle concentrations in high school classrooms, the dynamics of formaldehyde concentrations and emissions in classrooms, particle emissions from photocopy machines, and more.

I am so very proud of the six current students from our department (Chenyang Bi, Hagen Fritz, Jonathan Gingrich, Sangeetha Kumar, Hongwan Li, Michael Wade) who attended the conference and delivered wonderfully professional presentations. The feedback from those who interacted with our students and who observed them when they gave presentations on their research was universally positive.  They served as great ambassadors for our department and university.

Our four Professors chaired sessions, taught in an indoor air quality summer school course for graduate students and post-docs, served on panels, gave podium presentations, and were important contributors to workshops on cutting-edge issues in the field.  Dr. Atila Novoselac was elected to the Academy of Fellows of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ), a very well-deserved honor.  I was also elected President of the Academy of Fellows, a humbling honor and one for which I am grateful for the confidence of fellow Academy members.

But there were also many other connections to our program that were obvious at the conference.  First and foremost, the President (Michael Waring of Drexel University) and Technical Chair (Brent Stephens of Illinois Institute of Technology) were extraordinary Ph.D. students in our NSF-funded IGERT program on Indoor Environmental Science & Engineering.  And so was James Lo (also of Drexel University), who played a major role in smooth functioning of the conference.  Many other of our ex-students who are now in academia were present and made major contributions to Indoor Air 2018.  Their presence and contributions to the conference made me glow with pride.  These alumni included Elliott Gall (Portland State University), who received the Yaglou Award as a promising young researcher in the indoor air sciences.  Several past recipients of this award are now in the Academy of Fellows of ISIAQ>  Other alumni included Dr. Chi Chi Lin (National University of Kaohsiung in Taiwan), Dr. Ellison Carter (Colorado State University), Dr. Donghyun Rim (Penn State University), Dr. Brandon Boor (Purdue University), Dr. Jordan Clark (Ohio State University), and Dr. Shichao Liu (Worcester Polytechnic University).  Dr. Dustin Poppendieck, also an alumnus of our department as a Ph.D. student, and later as post-doc and research engineer on my team, is now a highly-recognized indoor air quality engineer at NIST.  Dustin was very active at Indoor Air 2018, as speaker, session chair, panelist, and all around catalyst for engaging discussions about indoor air quality research.  And Dr. Mark Jackson (Daikin Industries) was in attendance as a representative of the research groups at the world’s largest mechanical systems company.  What an impact our alumni are making!

But it does not stop there.  Many others at the conference have engaged in significant collaboration with our program.  The President of Indoor Air 2016, Dr. Jelle Laverge (University of Ghent), spent several months in our lab working on his Ph.D. dissertation and doing cutting-edge research on exposure to pollutants in the sleep microenvironment.  Dr. Gabriel Beko (Danish Technical University) spent several months in our lab while completing his Ph.D. dissertation.  Dr. Charlie Weschler (Rutgers University) has visited our program numerous times, and previously served as Chair of the External Advisory Committee for our highly successful NSF IGERT program on Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering.  Dr. Jack Spengler (Harvard University) also served in that same role.  Prominent indoor air quality researcher Dr. Pawel Wargocki hosted my extended visits to the Technical University of Denmark, an institution for which I just participated as a signatory on a new student exchange program with our department.  Keynote speaker Dr. Glenn Morrison (U of North Carolina) spent a nine-month sabbatical in our department.

The connections between the indoor air quality field and our program at UT Austin were also evident in presentations by Dr. Marina Vance (CU Boulder), Dr. Allen Goldstein (UC Berkeley), and others who spoke directly about or alluded to the recent HOMEChem field campaign involving 13 universities at the University of Texas Test House facility.

The list of connections with our Indoor Air Quality program could go on.  Needless to say, in my waning days as a faculty member at UT Austin I am exceptionally proud of the impactful program that my colleagues and I have built.  It has helped to shape the field of indoor air quality.  And with that, one last huge HookEm!

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Indoor Air Quality after Hurricane Harvey

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey there is a lot of talk about water, and rightfully so. Overwhelming amounts of contaminated water are an immediate concern. Some have lost their lives in it. Some have been infected by it. Over 100,000 homes have been flooded by it. Many of these will not be recoverable. We have watched Houston and surrounding areas of Southeast Texas drown before our very eyes. But the water will subside. Families will return to their homes. Children will return to their schools. Many will return to their workplaces. The buildings that they return to will be remediated and renovated to various degrees and by various means. But as life gets back to “normal”, those in the affected areas will have prolonged exposure to a wide range of air pollutants in their homes, schools, workplaces, and in other buildings which they frequent.

An immediate concern is the use of portable gasoline generators that some might choose to use indoors if they do not have power. After most natural disasters there are deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning stemming from generator exhaust. Death comes quickly and can kill an entire family before anyone detects what is happening. DO NOT USE PORTABLE GENERATORS INDOORS!

The media and most of the public will focus on mold in homes and schools. Mold is an important concern, as are other biological agents ranging from harmful bacteria and amoeba that can deposit and thrive on and in wet building materials. Many will hire companies to clean their homes by removing water-damaged and mold and bacteria-infested gypsum board, insulation, carpet, and furniture, scrubbing studs in walls with chlorine solution, and using fans, heaters, and dehumidifiers to remove moisture. Others will not have the economic benefit of hiring professionals, and will do the best they can by themselves or with the help of friends. In this case there is high potential for exposure to harmful chemical and biological agents if proper precautions are not taken.

The remediation of water-damaged buildings across Southeast Texas will cost home and other building owners many billions of dollars, feeding a cottage industry that is not constrained by many regulations. Biological remediation of buildings is not a well-established science and is often empirical, at best. The efficacy of such remediation will vary from building to building and by companies and individuals contracted to do the work. It is prudent to become educated on clean-up after floods and mold in homes, schools and other buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a lot of very good and practical information on their website related to these topics, including answers to frequently asked questions. The link to flood cleanup information is here:

https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/flood-cleanup-protect-indoor-air-quality

I encourage anyone who is dealing with flooded homes or schools to review this site. There is also a page dedicated specifically to information on mold cleanup after floods:

https://www.epa.gov/mold/mold-cleanup-after-floods

Harmful biological agents often deposit in cracks and crevices and are difficult to find and remove in these spaces. Because of this, treatment of whole buildings or building zones by injection of decontamination agents such as chlorine dioxide or vaporized hydrogen peroxide in air is sometimes used, allowing the possibility of reaching biological agents in hard-to-reach places. A similar technique is used to remove lingering odors by injecting ozone into buildings. My team at the University of Texas at Austin has done significant research on the chemistry of building decontamination and deodorizing agents. Ozone, for example, leads to the formation of reaction products (new chemicals) through its chemical reactions with materials in buildings. These reaction products can be irritating or worse, and some can persist in buildings for days to months. My team also has evidence that, depending on the mode of generation and conditions of application, treatment of buildings with chlorine dioxide can lead to reaction products. Some of these are similar to reaction products generated by ozone. Proper re-entry planning of buildings following any remediation effort is important. Waiting at least several days or longer after remediation is smart.

Importantly, NEVER be present when a home is being treated with a whole-home decontamination agent. This might sound obvious, but in times of crises people sometimes do not think straight. For example, several years ago I was involved with a case where a home was treated with ozone for odor decontamination. The family was not told to leave the house DURING ozone usage and became very ill. My forensic analysis suggested that the family was exposed to ozone levels that approached those immediately dangerous to life and health. The ozone also adversely affected rubber gaskets and other seals in the home, cracking them beyond further use, and also effectively destroyed several works of art. It left the home filled with lingering reaction products that were noticeable by smell months after the ozone was injected.

Ozonation of homes and schools comes with a lot of baggage. Ozone can effectively remove some odors, depending on the nature of the odorous chemicals, but generates new chemicals that are often a greater concern than those chemicals that smell bad. There are some who will try to sell ozone for “disinfection” of harmful biological agents in buildings, a method that is not effective for whole-home or zone treatment of bacteria or mold.

When water subsides completely it will leave behind streets, yards, parks, playgrounds, and indoor materials laden with toxic metals, organic contaminants, and pathogenic organisms. These will come from gasoline, oil spills, consumer products flooded out of home garages and businesses, overflowing sewers, flooded industrial facilities, Superfund sites, and more. The levels of these pollutants will not be evenly distributed across Southeast Texas; some neighborhoods will be more contaminated than others. Organic contaminants left behind in liquid form will volatilize and contaminate outdoor and indoor air where people live, learn, and work. Many of the pollutants deposited on the ground outdoors will be tracked indoors on shoes and will contaminate indoor surfaces. This happens under normal conditions, and definitely will be an elevated concern for Houstonians and others for the next several years. Contaminants left behind as solids or in the solid phase will become airborne when the wind blows, when motor vehicles drive over contaminated streets, or when homeowners walk on and sweep contaminated flooring. Just yesterday I watched an interview with a man who was sweeping dried residue from the floor in his home. He should have been wearing a protective mask to reduce his inhalation exposure to the airborne contaminants that he was re-suspending while sweeping.

There will be a lot of trash, tree limbs, and other natural debris everywhere as water subsides. Some people will take it upon themselves to burn vegetation and perhaps trash in containers or bonfires around their homes, or even in their fireplaces. This will lead to elevated levels of harmful fine particulate matter outdoors that will penetrate into the air of homes and schools with potentially harmful impacts on those who already have respiratory diseases such as asthma. Trash may contain plastic materials that when combusted will lead to the formation of toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans. Others might contain toxic metals. Avoid backyard and fireplace burning of vegetation and trash. Bag the trash. Tie it down. Wait for proper disposal. Cut and stack limbs and other vegetation, again for proper disposal.

Some people in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey get their water from wells, some of which may have had well heads that were submerged under many feet of water. Most of these wells are deep enough and have properly sealed well heads so that they have avoided contamination. But there is a possibility of contamination of some wells. In those unfortunate cases, well water may have been contaminated by harmful bacteria, or chemicals that floodwaters carried off industrial sites, Superfund sites, or even nearby residential or commercial properties where fuels and chemicals are stored. Drinking or bathing in contaminated well water can have short-term effects, e.g., dysentery, as well as long-term toxic effects. My team has done research on chemical releases from water to indoor air for uses ranging from showering to laundering activities and dish washing. Volatile chemicals that are released from water to indoor air with subsequent inhalation can be as important in terms of uptake to the human body as is drinking the water. And even less-volatile chemicals and biological agents can enter the air through a process known as aerosolization (formation of droplets). Those who suspect that their well water may have been contaminated should have it tested and take precautionary steps. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has provided some good information about maintaining a safe well and protecting well water after a flood. A link to that information is:

https://www.epa.gov/privatewells

Some Suggestions

1. NEVER, NEVER use a gasoline-powered electrical generator (portable generator) indoors.

2. Wear an N-95 respirator mask to protect yourself from mold and other biological agents in water-damaged buildings. This is particularly important during clean-up activities. These can be purchased at hardware stores or online. If you have facial hair you should consider shaving it to make the mask more effective.

3. Get it dry and keep it dry. Damp buildings promote the growth of biological agents that may be harmful, as well as chemical reactions that may lead to irritating or toxic by-products. The lack of dampness in the occupied space does not mean that there is no dampness in the spaces that you cannot see in a home or other building, and that are also important. These hidden spaces may include crawlspaces, attics, and wall cavities. To the extent possible, these spaces should be kept under negative pressure relative to the occupied space to avoid transport of harmful pollutants to the occupied space. Most importantly, you should keep these spaces dry. FEMA has information about dehumidification and drying of damp buildings here:

https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1381405548275-ec9f9b9de186f1874b92ecda6c33182b/SandyFactsheet1CleaningFloodedBldgs_508_FINAL2.pdf

4. Have the condition of your air handling unit and ducts (HVAC system) inspected for water damage and biological agents. This is particularly important for systems with underfloor ducts that are more prone to flood damage. The use of contaminated HVAC systems can be a major source of exposure to mold and bacteria, and these damaged systems disperse harmful agents throughout a home or other buildings.

5. If your HVAC system is functioning and not contaminated, consider purchasing higher efficiency HVAC filters and using your fan on continuous mode. This will help to remove airborne bacteria and mold spores/fragments as well as some other particles in air.

6. If you have the resources to purchase one or more portable air cleaners, do so. If you have the resources to help a friend who does not have the resources, gift one to your friend. Do not purchase ionizing air filters or ozone generators. Look for air cleaners that contain HEPA filters and activated carbon, and that have a CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate) of greater than 150 (scfm). This is sufficient to significantly reduce particle and some gaseous chemical levels in a moderate-sized bedroom. Accept the noise from keeping the unit on its highest flow setting. Use earplugs if the noise is a nuisance to you. Silent or low-noise air cleaners are rarely effective air cleaners.

Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have good information to help educate you on different types of air cleaners, what to look for, and what to avoid. Review these sites before purchasing a portable air cleaner:

USEPA: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/residential-air-cleaners-second-edition-summary-available-information#portable-guidance

CARB: https://www.arb.ca.gov/research/indoor/aircleaners.htm

7. Avoid using ozone to remediate your home. It can be effective at removing odors, but the gases that cause the odors are often a nuisance and not as harmful as the products that are formed when ozone is used in a home.

8. Once your home is cleaned up be sure to take your shoes off before entering. This is a good habit in general, but will protect your family from track-in of contaminants left behind in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Those contaminants will exist outdoors for weeks to years, depending on the specific contaminant and where it has deposited.

9. Finally, live by the precautionary principle. This is particularly important if you are expecting a child, or have young children or family members who have respiratory diseases or compromised immune systems. If you do not know whether something is harmful assume that it is and take protective action. If you have time to do so, educate yourself rapidly by accessing the links provided above.

I have been contacted by others with ideas and questions about how to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I cannot respond to all inquiries, but will try to address some in future blogs and tweets @CorsIAQ. To those in affected areas, be safe and do what you can to make informed decisions.

Thanks to my colleague Atila Novoselac for technical review and comments on this document

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Reflections of @UT_CAEE Chair

Being the chair of a large academic department is not easy.  On the best of days it is like herding cats.  On the worst of days it is like herding rabid cats while being blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back and the other carrying a large metal pole in a severe lightning storm.  Most days are somewhere in between.

The most significant reward for serving as chair is found in reflection.  What changes happened during my tenure?  Who benefitted from those changes?  What major challenges did I help to overcome?  Have I left the department in a better place?  Did I help to enhance the educations of students?  I have been doing a lot of reflection lately.

Did I make mistakes as department chair?  Of course I did, lots of them.  I wish that I had some “do overs.”  But I also learned from my mistakes, including recognition that to achieve positive things one has to stay focused on goals and continue to advance on them despite setbacks.  Eye on the ball.

A lot of positive changes were made during my four years as Chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).  Most of these were consistent with the five major goals that I scribbled on a sheet of engineering paper my first few days as Chair in the fall of 2013:

  1. Advance the CAEE strategic plan and vision (make it happen)
    The CAEE strategic plan and visions revolves around pillars of water, energy, rapid growth of cities, and (importantly) the interconnectedness of these pillars. We believe that innovation is found in the connections.
  2. Empower young faculty members
  3. Enhance the undergraduate experience
  4. Market, market, market!!!
  5. Break down the traditional silos that restrict civil engineering as a field

I rearranged these goals about a year into my service as Chair.  Specifically, I realized that to achieve any and all of the other goals required significant empowerment of younger faculty members.  So, the goals were rearranged with goal 2 in the middle and arrows pointed out to all other goals.  While perhaps not all that impressive to others, on the playing field of my brain this recognition was a stroke of genius.  Importantly, I returned to this set of goals frequently as my anchor.

By no means do I take sole credit for changes that addressed the five goals listed above.  Many others initiated, helped with, and led major initiatives to improve the CAEE community.  But I do take pride in defining the goals, shaping the landscape, encouraging others, and pushing where necessary, even when the boulder was weighty and the slope steep.  The positive accomplishments along the way were a community effort in the truest sense of the word.  It was not only about faculty, but boy did the younger faculty step to the plate.  The wonderful staff of CAEE helped to execute action items that played to these goals.  Students were given a voice and opportunities that they took to heart, helping to solidify major action items that have benefitted their educational experiences.  The CAEE External Advisory Committee weighed in with a strong and united voice on several key issues to help catalyze change, particularly on behalf of students.  And our alumni, particularly the 120 or so members of our Academy of Distinguished Alumni, answered the call, again largely on behalf of our CAEE students.

Listed below are some of the major changes that occurred in CAEE during my four years as Chair.  I elaborate on a few for no other reason than my excitement over what these mean for the future of CAEE.  I also crafted this statement with the intent of not referring to anyone by name, primarily for fear of omitting someone.  Those who helped advance CAEE over the past four years will hopefully take great pride in knowing where they fit in the list presented below.

  • New faculty. A total of 12 new faculty members joined CAEE during my four years as Chair, nearly ¼ of our total faculty.  Four of these were officially hired before I became Chair but started after I assumed the position.  In those cases much work was needed to sort out issues with lab renovations and more.  Eight faculty members were hired while I served as chair.  And all eight were the first choice of our faculty.  Eight for eight isn’t bad considering that many peer institutions compete for the same talent.  In their applications and interviews these faculty members had to discuss what they would bring to the department in terms of our strategic vision.  I am so very pleased with the young faculty members we have hired, particularly their passion for teaching and for working across disciplinary boundaries.
  • New Architectural Engineering (ARE) design studio. This is a major upgrade to the old studio, 50% larger with modern space, and all due to the generous donation of a devoted and successful alumnus of our Architectural Engineering program.
  • Additional renovations to ECJ Hall. These renovations include four new classrooms, a large multi-purpose classroom/meeting room, tutorial room, study lounge, offices for our ASCE and AEI student chapters.  Additional funds have been raised to renovate space for visiting scholars, post-docs, and graduate student offices.  These renovations were made possible by a number of generous and committed alumni of CAEE.
  • Master Schedule. A major accomplishment was the development and implementation of a first-ever master schedule for undergraduate courses in CAEE, thus allowing our students to better chart a course to graduate in four years.  Past attempts over two decades to develop such a master schedule had failed.  We now have one in place, implemented and taking root.  The CAEE External Advisory Committee, CAEE staff, and two faculty colleagues played a key role in making this happen for our students.
  • Environmental Engineering Program. A new undergraduate degree program in Environmental Engineering was proposed and pushed through a rigorous approval processes over a two year period.  The new degree program starts in fall 2017.  The number of applications for this program in its first year was extraordinary, and the first official class is significantly larger than planned.  The female/male ratio for applicants and admits is so large it will push the entire department to full gender equity within the next two or three years; the 900 undergraduate students in our program are currently 43% female.  This new program plays directly to the water pillar of the CAEE strategic vision.
  • Sustainable Systems Engineering. A new graduate program in Sustainable Systems Engineering will also start in fall 2017.  This program received over 130 applications in its first year and is highly selective (< 10% admitted).  The program plays directly to CAEE’s strategic vision and will provide a unique and holistic educational experience for students in the program.
  • Chair’s Challenges. Early in my tenure as Chair I implemented an annual Chair’s Challenge and scholarships for undergraduate students.  I am particularly proud of my last Chair’s Challenge, which involved design and construction of a sustainable, resilient, and healthy doghouse.  The 18 student teams who participated in this challenge surpassed by expectations (by a mile) and produced some amazing dog houses.  They also caused a buzz and got a large audience when they presented their dog houses in front of ECJ Hall during formal judging one afternoon.
  • Restructuring of Departmental Administration. The CAEE administration was reorganized to include separate associate chairs for Student Affairs and each undergraduate degree program (Architectural, Civil, and Environmental Engineering) to improve stewardship of each program.
  • Implementation of a Strategic Vision Implementation Committee (SVIC). Strategic plans and visions are only worthwhile if actions are taken to implement them.  The SVIC consists of primarily younger faculty members who are given a mandate to deliver actionable recommendations to advance the CAEE strategic vision to the Chair and full faculty.  The new graduate program in Sustainable Systems Engineering is an outcome of this committee’s work.
  • Marketing. A reorganization of staff responsibilities was made to allow for greater communication on the UT campus and to the outside world about activities and accomplishments of CAEE students, faculty and alumni. Target audiences include other faculty on the UT campus, prospective undergraduate and graduate students, prospective faculty members, alumni, peers, and the media.  To that end, our outstanding staff spent considerable effort revamping our department website, using social media (particularly twitter), enhancing our CAEE newsletters, and more.  Feedback on these efforts from many stakeholders suggests that it has been a significant success.

Some important additional outcomes during the past four years include:

  • Very successful ABET accreditation for our undergraduate programs in Architectural Engineering and Civil Engineering.
  • Continued top 4 rankings of our undergraduate and graduate programs in US News and World Report, including our highest ranking ever at #2 for our Civil Engineering graduate program in the USN&W Report 2017 rankings.
  • Successful completion of our 1st-ever graduate programs review.

There are more changes and outcomes, but those listed above are the ones that seem to dominate my reflections.  It was a wild ride at times, but I am proud of how our CAEE community banded together to advance what we do, who we are, and where we are headed.  I might even miss herding those cats.

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Q and A with Department Chair Richard Corsi

Richard L. Corsi has served as chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin since 2013. He is stepping down to focus on his research and teaching in the area of indoor air quality. We sat down with him to discuss what he has learned, what he has enjoyed and what he is going to miss most about being department chair.

What would you consider to be your greatest successes as department chair?
I am proud of several accomplishments: Advancing the department’s strategic vision and plan and facilitating our early career faculty members’ ownership of that vision. They are helping to push the plan forward and build it. A plan is just a plan unless faculty help with follow-through, and I am very proud that is happening.

Finalizing and adopting a master schedule for undergraduate students so that they can get the courses they need to graduate in four years.

Raising funds to renovate the third-floor spaces in our building. Now, there are more inspiring, state-of-the-art places for our students to learn, collaborate and study.

Hiring eight new faculty members. The young faculty members we have hired are inspiring teachers who infuse new ideas, tools and innovations that translate into our courses and the research we do. They help students make new connections and see across boundaries.

What have you learned after serving as department chair?
It became clear to me how amazing our staff is. They are the gears of the department; things get done because we have dedicated staff who make things happen.

I also recognized that every faculty member has different constraints and challenges and balances things in ways I could never imagine. Faculty members form a bit of a mosaic, their talents are diverse and focused. There is no ‘generic faculty member.’

What are your hopes for the future of the department?
One of the things I wanted to do as department chair was to start breaking down the traditional silos, the separate areas of civil engineering. If faculty and students can work together across disciplines, they can be more creative and innovative when solving problems. The early career faculty (nearly 20 assistant and associate professors) have a really strong desire to chip away at these silos. I hope they continue to be encouraged to stay a family of cross-disciplined engineers and teachers, and I hope that, as they grow in their careers, they will keep that with them. They will ultimately be the ones that break down the silos, and I have a lot of faith that they will do this.

You have led the implementation of the department’s strategic vision; how do you see this vision being implemented in the future?
The Strategic Vision Implementation Committee consists of assistant and associate professors who feel that they have a say about the future direction of the
department and who feel empowered to advance our strategic plan. I would like to see this group continue to stay engaged. We should also revisit the strategic vision and treat it as a living document that evolves depending on the needs of society, faculty and students. It may be that, 10 years from now, it looks nothing like it does today.

During your time as chair, you invited students to compete in three separate team projects. Can you comment on these three annual Chair’s Challenges?
I am very passionate about enhancing the undergraduate experience for students. I wanted to provide opportunities for students to be motivated, inspired and challenged to do things outside of the classroom, and that’s where the Chair’s Challenge comes in. I knew that not everyone would participate but that some students would think it is a cool idea and would be excited to do something extra, to problem solve and have a friendly competition with each other. I challenged the students to produce a video about the nexus of cities, water and energy and to produce a video about why they chose to become a civil, architectural or environmental engineer, but I was most excited about this year’s challenge — the design of a sustainable, resilient, healthy and aesthetically pleasing dog house. The students really got into it.

  

Are you eager to return to the classroom?
It is always great to be with students, and I enjoy teaching undergraduates the fundamentals of engineering. I am looking forward to getting back into the classroom and hoping to dedicate the remainder of my career to improving undergraduate education.

What is one of the best things you discovered while serving as department chair?
One of the things I have enjoyed most about being department chair is meeting alumni, whether at the university or out in the field. So many of our alumni are doing incredible things for the profession and, when they do great things and then tell people they are graduates from our department at UT Austin, it shines a big, positive light on the department. Our alumni mean a lot to our stature.

Our alumni are also so dedicated to the program and give back in many different ways. They hire our students, give financially to support our students and programs and show our students the various career paths that await them. We are so very fortunate that we have such amazing alumni.

What do you view as the department challenges for the next chair?
Collectively, our department is among the elite programs in the nation. We do great things and are capable of doing even greater things. One of the challenges for the next department chair will be how to reach that untapped potential.

I’d like to think that, 10 years from now the nation will turn to our department on a range of societal infrastructure issues and say “we need to go see what Texas thinks.” We have to find ways of becoming leaders of our discipline without taxing our community, everyone has personal lives and already works very hard. How can we restructure ourselves so we don’t cost people more time and resources but get to a place that is better than the great place we are at now?

Department professor and geotechnical engineer Robert Gilbert will begin his appointment as the next chair on Sept. 1, 2017.

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Reflections on Indoor Air 2016 and the Contributions of the University of Texas IAQ Program

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With Indoor Air 2016 President Jelle Laverge (left)

Sitting in the Brussels airport waiting for my flight back to Texas I have had time to reflect on Indoor Air 2016.  Indoor Air conferences are the premiere conferences for those of us around the globe who study indoor air quality.  The conference series was started in 1978.  Until 2014 in Hong Kong it was held every three years.  It then went to a two-year cycle, and was just recently held in Ghent, Belgium. The University of Texas organized Indoor Air 2011 in Austin.  The conference generally draws around 1,000 delegates, with perhaps ¼ being graduate students.  The bulk of the remainder are faculty members at universities around the world, researchers in government labs, and a much smaller number of policymakers, industry staff, and consultants.

I am pleased and proud of the influence that the indoor air quality program at the University of Texas at Austin has made on our field, and the significant connections that we have made within the field.  Our team’s attendance at Indoor Air 2016 was equivalent to that of a moderate-sized country.  We sent a contingent of 10 delegates, roughly 1% of conference attendees from just one academic department.  We were the only delegates from the State of Texas, and so we made sure that Texas pulled its weight at the conference.  Our four Professors chaired sessions, served on panels, gave podium presentations, and were important contributors to workshops on cutting-edge issues in the field.  Our two research engineers/scientists gave presentations and served as session chairs.  And I am most proud of the four current students from our department who attended the conference, gave wonderful presentations, and served as ambassadors for our department and university.  I received great feedback from those who interacted with our students and who observed them when they gave presentations on their research.

Our team presented cutting-edge research related to emissions and presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in schools and other buildings, outdoor and indoor ozone concentrations in high schools in Texas, ventilation quality and accumulation of human breath in high school classrooms in Texas, particle concentrations in high school classrooms, oxygenated VOCs in high school classrooms, the microbiology of portable classrooms, and more.  We also participated in sessions and workshops on the important topics of chemistry and microbiology of the built environment, sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

But there were also many other connections to our program that were obvious at the conference.  Many of our ex-students who are now in academia were present and made major contributions to Indoor Air 2011.  As a product of the indoor air quality program at UT, their presence and performance made me glow with pride.  These alumni included Dr. Chi Chi Lin (now a professor in Taiwan), Dr. Ellison Carter (Colorado State University), Dr. Donghyun Rim (Penn State University), Dr. James Lo (Drexel University), Dr. Brent Stephens (Illinois Institute of Technology), Dr. Brandon Boor (Purdue University), and Dr. Michael Waring (Drexel University).  Dr. Dustin Poppendieck, also an alumnus of our department as a Ph.D. student, and later as post-doc and research engineer on my team, is now a highly-recognized indoor air quality engineer at NIST.  Dustin was all over Indoor Air 2016, as speaker, session chair, poster-presenter, and all around catalyst for engaging discussions about indoor air quality research.  Another graduate of our program, Dr. Shahana Khurshid, is also at NIST, doing research as a post-doctoral fellow.  And to top this all off, Michael Waring and Brent Stephens were named President and Technical Chair of Indoor Air 2018 in Philadelphia.  What an impact our alumni are making!

But it does not stop there.  Many others at the conference have engaged in significant collaboration with our program.  The President of Indoor Air 2016, Jelle Laverge (University of Ghent), spent several months in our lab working on his Ph.D. dissertation and doing cutting-edge research on exposure to pollutants in the sleep microenvironment.  Keynote speaker Gabriel Beko (Danish Technical University) spent several months in our lab while completing his Ph.D. dissertation.  Keynote speaker Jeffrey Siegel (U of Toronto) spent nearly 10 years as a faculty member in our program before moving to his current position in his native Canada.  Jeff was also inducted into the prestigious ISIAQ Academy of Fellows.  Outgoing President of the Board of Directors of the International Society for Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ), Glenn Morrison, spent a nine-month sabbatical in our department.  Closing keynote speaker Charlie Weschler (Rutgers University) has visited our program numerous times, and previously served as Chair of the External Advisory Committee for our highly successful NSF IGERT program on Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering.  Prominent indoor air quality researcher Pawel Wargocki hosted my extended visits to the Technical University of Denmark, an institution for which I just participated as a signatory on a new student exchange program with our department.  Keynote speaker Yinping Zhang (Tsinghua University) has also visited our lab several times and hosted me during a recent visit to Tsinghua University.

The list of connections with our Indoor Air Quality program could go on.  As one prominent indoor air quality researcher from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said to me during one of the conference breaks, “The University of Texas has taken over the field!”  That’s a very kind overstatement.  However, I am very, very proud of the major contributions that our students, alumni, research staff, and faculty are making to the very important field of indoor air quality.  HookEm!

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Architectural Engineering: Saving Lives, Protecting the Earth, Building Our Future

I recently tweeted that if I could do it all over again I might just have studied architectural engineering. In fact, I think that a dual degree in architectural engineering and environmental engineering (my undergraduate degree) or a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and master’s degree in environmental engineering would have given me the tools that I have strived to learn later in my career. That combination of degrees is rarely discussed, but provides a powerful skillset to advance an important educational frontier that I refer to as indoor environmental science and engineering.  For two decades I have promoted this frontier as one of great societal value that we ought to be teaching in universities as an actual degree program. We have not gotten very far along that path, but I am optimistic that we should and can still get there. Until then, I will continue to promote architectural engineering as a discipline critical to a broader degree in indoor environmental science and engineering.

In this blog I describe why I believe architectural engineering is such an exciting and important field.

Stand on any street corner in any city in the world and you will witness the work of architectural engineers. Whether you see office complexes, homes, schools, high rise apartments, hospitals, sports stadiums, museums, industrial facilities, or buildings of worship, you are seeing the work of architectural engineers. Buildings are their domain. And while architects address the form, shape, and aesthetics of buildings, architectural engineers design, construct, and maintain the highly integrated systems of buildings. These systems make up the “anatomy” of buildings. And just like with the human anatomy, building anatomies, and the integrated sub-systems that make them, define the overall health of the system. It is not a stretch to equate architectural engineers to medial doctors, each working on different but complex anatomical systems.

Consider the following facts and ways that architectural engineers benefit mankind and the global environment.

Architectural engineers save lives. There are over 7 billion people on earth who at any given time of day occupy between one and two billion buildings across areas with very different climates and hazards. Architectural engineers assure that buildings are structurally sound and resilient in the face of natural hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and more. This requires knowledge of structural engineering, building materials, and sound construction practices. And architectural engineers also design, operate and maintain heating, cooling and ventilation systems that save lives during extreme heat waves and freezing conditions outdoors. We often take for granted that the buildings we occupy do not collapse on us, and provide us with a comfortable environment even when outdoor conditions can be deadly. You can thank an architectural engineer for keeping human anatomies safe inside the building anatomy!

Architectural engineers have a greater impact on a sustainable future than almost any other profession. Buildings consume 40% of all energy generated in the U.S., more than all industries and all motor vehicles. As such, they are responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions that affect the world’s climate. Buildings also consume 74% of all electricity, 14% of all potable water, and 40% of all raw materials used in the U.S. And many of the materials used in buildings require significant energy and water for production, and exert penalties on the natural environment. Architectural engineers are at the forefront of finding new ways to design sustainable buildings that reduce energy and water consumption, and that also utilize more environmentally friendly materials.

Architectural engineers keep people healthy. The average life expectancy of an American is 79 years. Remarkably, we spend 70 of those 79 years inside of buildings, a greater percentage of time than whales spend submerged below the surface of the ocean! Our lifetime exposure to air pollution, toxic chemicals, and harmful or irritating microbes is generally dominated by what we inhale and touch inside of buildings. Architectural engineers design, operate and maintain building systems to remove harmful pollution that enters buildings from outdoors or that is generated indoors.

Architectural engineers apply cutting-edge tools to make buildings safer, healthier, and more sustainable. These tools include a wide range of wireless sensors and (increasingly) robotic and micro-robotic systems that collect vast amounts of information about building, outdoor, and even occupant conditions. These data are incorporated into sophisticated data visualization tools to conduct building information modeling (BIM), energy analysis, and more. And with these modern technologies has come the ability to rapidly change the internal and external anatomies of buildings to optimize comfort, health, worker productivity, and energy consumption. Architectural engineers are defining the future of buildings around the world.

Architectural engineering is an exciting and important career. Architectural engineers combine good problem solving and mathematical skills with significant ingenuity and creativity. By virtue of the complexity of buildings and building inhabitants, architectural engineers work closely with those in many other disciplines. And there are few other engineering fields so directly linked to people.

And now a gratuitous plug for the architectural engineering program at UT Austin. For more about our undergraduate program and the field of architectural engineering in general, please visit http://www.caee.utexas.edu/architectural . It’s a great read.

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Today our UT team is going back to high school.

Schools have a unique place in the fabric of America. Yet there is growing evidence that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) leads to increases in student illnesses and absenteeism, decreases in academic performance, and increased upper-respiratory problems in teachers. Past studies of IAQ in schools have been deficient in many ways. Only four of 735 published papers that we have reviewed involve actual measurements in high schools in North America. There has been little progress in determining the actual agents responsible for adverse effects when ventilation is inadequate. Environmental agents responsible for dampness-related health effects have not been determined. Few studies have focused on irritating oxygenated VOCs (OVOCs) and their sources. Schools in hot and humid climates have been under-represented. And the focus to date has been on identifying IAQ problems in schools. Proven low-cost solutions are needed.

That’s why I am so excited. Today our UT team is going back to high school. We begin today what will be an intense two-year field campaign as part of a four-year study to characterize indoor environmental quality (indoor air quality + lighting + noise) in high schools in Texas. The title of our effort is Healthy High School PRIDE (Partnership in Research on InDoor Environments). This project is funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) through their Healthy Schools: Environmental Factors, Children’s Health and Performance, and Sustainable Building Practices (FON: EPA-G2013-STAR-H1) initiative. The USEPA deserves significant kudos for taking the lead on this very important initiative that involves projects being undertaken by seven different universities.

The overall goal of our project is to address major research gaps by conducting an intensive field campaign to delineate the relationship between environmental factors and student and teacher health and perceptions, and then investigating the efficacy of low-cost solutions to help schools become healthier. Specific objectives include: (1) identify systematic problems in school HVAC systems that cause poor ventilation rates, increased pollutant concentrations and adverse health symptoms for school occupants and explore low-cost solutions to these problems,  (2) utilize molecular techniques to investigate relationships between composition and diversity of the microbial community present in school classrooms, environmental conditions, and health symptoms, (3) delineate the role of OVOCs on student and teacher health outcomes, and (4) engage high school student and teacher stewards in the design, data collection and outreach components of the project.

The UT project involves three progressive school districts with whom we have partnered, with the ultimate goal of finding low cost ways of making their schools healthier or to avoid high costs down-the-road due to building-related problems that can be identified and nipped in the bud now. Our hope is that by leveraging findings from our partnering schools, others across the United States will also benefit.

During our field campaign we do intensive walk-throughs of every high school, from exterior grounds (looking for local sources of pollution, etc.) to inspections of the occupied interior space, and assessment of HVAC systems and, where possible, interstitial spaces. These inspections inform our field sampling design for each high school, within which we will collect a range of indoor environmental samples in four to five locations every semester. In addition to indoor samples, we will collect samples from HVAC systems (filter cakes), and outdoors for specific air quality parameters.

Sampling at each location will be completed for four consecutive days and will include measurements of comfort parameters such as temperature and relative humidity, carbon dioxide, air exchange rates, HVAC cycling, noise, illuminance, size-fractionated PM2.5, bioaerosols, surface microbes, microbes on HVAC filter cakes, formaldehyde, terpenes, terpene alcohols, other VOCs (particularly polar/oxygenated VOCs) and ozone. To the extent possible we are also identifying other important metadata, including major sources of indoor and outdoor pollutants at each school, the nature of cleaning products and practices, HVAC system operation and filter types, number of health-related absences before, during, and after cold and flu season, and more. Teachers and students are also providing anonymous and voluntary health and perception data via surveys.

Our team will spend summers analyzing mountains of data and testing several key hypotheses, but also working with our school partners to access unoccupied classrooms and other school spaces to evaluate low-cost solutions to improve indoor environmental quality. Examples might include removal of specific sources, low-cost measures for improved pressure balancing to reduce pollutant entry through interstitial spaces, and testing of improved filter technologies.

A central part of our effort is to excite 9th and 10th graders about STEM fields, in our case building science, e.g., architectural engineering, microbiology, and chemistry. As such, our collective high school partners have identified over 50 bright young minds who will serve as our student stewards. Our team is completing detailed workshops with every school to describe the importance of indoor environmental quality, and to complete demonstrations regarding sources and measurements of indoor pollutants. At the workshop teams of student stewards are asked to think of a location in their school where they think a swab sample to evaluate microbial communities would be interesting, and they get to collect the sample and later learn what they found. Our stewards are also alerted in advance to our work in their schools and are invited to shadow and learn from our efforts, including analysis of data after sampling events. And, each group of school stewards get to compete against other school stewards in an indoor air quality challenge during the summer. In the summer 2016 stewards will be challenged to design a portable air purifier to remove a specific list of pollutants from air. Our team will provide initial guidance and materials. The steward teams will then come to our laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin to test their air purifiers in large chamber facilities that are challenged by the pollutants of interest. I cannot wait to see what ingenious air purification systems our stewards will design. To top all of this off, the student stewards will have an opportunity to formally present their findings at a session at a major conference before they graduate from high school!

There will be many more posts related to this project over the next three years. Stay tuned!

 

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