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The VITAL SIGNS Curriculum Materials Project: 1996 Case Study Competition
The jury for the 1996 Vital Signs Student Case Study Competition met on January 24, 1997 at the PG&E Energy Center in San Francisco. The jury consisted of the following individuals:
Vital Signs staff and jury members at a cafe near the PG&E Energy Center, site of the final jury session. From left to right: Allan Daly, Cris Benton, Tom Fisher, Bill Burke, Gail Brager, Nancy Clanton, Harrison Fraker, Rick Diamond, and Ray Dehn. Not pictured: Alison Kwok and Susan Ubbelohde.
Prior to meeting in person, the jurors had individually reviewed competition entries in
a two phase process. In the first phase each of the ninety-nine entries submitted for the
competition was reviewed by two of the six jury members. In this phase, jurors were asked
to designate those entries that should be reviewed by the entire jury. If an entry was so
designated by either of the two jurors reviewing it, it was then read by the entire jury
in phase two. Twenty-eight entries were reviewed by all of the six jurors in this second
phase. At the end of this second review phase, each juror selected what he or she
considered to be the top ten entries. The Vital Signs staff then tallied the votes of the
jury members. At the start of the January 24th session, jurors received a summary of the
voting and began their discussion of the individual entries.
Rick Diamond, Jury Chairman, ponders competition entries.
The Vital Signs Student Case Study Competition asked architecture students to examine
the physical performance of existing buildings. To assure that student entries would be
reviewed as consistently as possible, the Vital Signs staff established evaluation
criteria prior to the start of the competition.
Harrison Fraker makes a point as Ray Dehn looks on.
Because this was the first competition of its kind, jury members were sailing through
uncharted waters as they evaluated the entries. Inevitably, as jury members reviewed the
student entries, they developed additional considerations of their own. Early in the final
session, jurors listed and discussed these additional criteria. This allowed members of
the jury to understand any additional standards each of them had applied in making her or
his selections. Most of these additional criteria proved to be quite similar for the
different jurors. First and foremost was whether the students had learned something from
their field investigation that would influence their future thinking and work. Did they
know and explain what their investigation meant? If they found something different from
what they had expected, did they learn from it or ignore it? A second important
consideration for most jurors was whether the student investigation linked building
performance issues back to questions of architectural design. Were the students able to
integrate these concerns with a picture of the building as a whole?
Nancy Clanton and Tom Fisher consider and discuss entries at the jury session.
Below are comments from the jurors on the six winning entries. These are followed by
thoughts from the jury about the entries as a whole and the case study approach in
A Tale of Two Houses: Environmental Quality, Sustainability, and Indoor Comfort
Inside Hassan Fathy's Mit Rehan and A Contemporary Villa in Cairo, Egypt
Student author: Ihab Elzeyadi, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Faculty advisor: Michael Utzinger
The jury believed that the study's hypotheses were well-designed and that the investigation was very well executed. The questions asked were very provocative and were answered with a careful research design. Jurors found the study to be an exemplary model for hypothesis based investigations of buildings. The jury agreed that the research methods were sound and that the investigator measured temperature and relative humidity intelligently. The jury also felt that the study was extremely well presented. Furthermore, they were impressed by the fact that the investigator began the study expecting to find one thing, found something different, and was open to it. The results of the study challenge a widely held belief about the performance of traditional dwellings - that traditional materials always lead to good performance. The study showed that an intelligently designed modern house can also work well.
The jurors did express reservations about the claims regarding traditional materials
and embodied energy that appear at the end of the study. They believed that these would be
better presented as questions for further investigation.
Phoenix Central Library: Thermal Performance of a Desert Monument
Student authors: Teresa Burrelsman, Braam De Villiers, Felicity Lewis, Peyush Agarwal, University of Arizona
Faculty advisor: Nader Chalfoun
The jury found this study to be comprehensive, looking at total building performance as well as a number of different systems. They felt that the student team had done a good job of understanding a complicated building, in particular thermal and lighting performance. Several jurors pointed out that in their discussion of fixed versus moveable shading devices, the team pointed out maintenance and operational problems. The jury found these to be appropriate topics for documentation, with relevance to the many recent buildings designed with mechanically operated screens. Some members of the jury questioned whether the study posed a clear set of hypotheses that the team sought to prove or disprove. The jury agreed, however, that the team deserved considerable credit for taking the challenge of comprehensively examining a whole building, something few other studies attempted. The jury was impressed by the evidence the team presented showing that the design of building form and skin do matter in internally load dominated buildings in hot climates.
The jury also appreciated that this was one of only a few entries that compared
simulation studies with measured data. There was also an assessment of design alternatives
based on the information gained from the simulation study. The jury sensed that the
students really understood the building well by the time they had finished their
The Waverley Plantation - Passive Cooling: Past and Present
Student authors: Tracey Johnson and Kyle Wagner, Mississippi State University
Faculty advisor: Jane Greenwood
This study generated more discussion than any other entry. The jury was intrigued by the whimsy and inventiveness of the measurement technique developed by the student team. To study passive cooling and air movement in a historic building, the students constructed paper pinwheels. They suspended the pinwheels from line at regular intervals vertically and horizontally throughout the building's four story atrium. The students then videotaped the movement of the pinwheels at the various locations and made relative judgments about air velocity. Their findings were clearly presented in a series of color coded charts drawn over a section taken through the building.
Jurors applauded the fact that the team creatively measured air movement without
instrumentation. All jurors lauded the energy, inventiveness and care obvious throughout
the study. However, several members of the jury questioned the reliability of the
findings. They pointed out that the pinwheel technique, as executed, did not isolate the
impacts of cross and stack ventilation. In addition, the cool seasonal conditions at the
time of the study were poor for measuring the effectiveness of stack ventilation. Jurors
agreed, however, that by the end of the study the students had come to see these
limitations themselves. The students also suggested ways in which their research methods
could be improved in future studies. For example, clear shields surrounding the pinwheels
would limit the impact of cross ventilation. This would allow the students to measure
vertical air movement in isolation. The jury believed that the team deserved credit for
clearly explaining what they had learned over the course of the study, including an
understanding of the limitations of their initial research plan. The soundness of the
students' thinking, if not the results derived from the initial research plan, was beyond
question. This fact, combined with the creativity, inventiveness and playful sense of
curiosity exhibited throughout the study made it an undeniable winner.
Occupant Comfort Relating to Lighting Strategies in the VeriFone Worldwide Distribution Center
Student author: Swapna Sundaram, University of California, Los Angeles
Faculty advisor: Murray Milne
The jury saw this as a strong example of a study that focused on one issue, in this case daylighting. Jurors believed the topic was investigated in an extremely careful way. The student examined the daylighting system in the building, tested and measured it, and found out it didn't work the way it was intended. The study also looks at glare and how it can be eliminated by different design elements. Jurors believed the study showed a good handle on what the problems were, and analyzed the building from a good neutral standpoint.
The jurors also felt that this study examined a unique building type that made it an
interesting choice for study. The building had been retrofitted for a use different from
the purpose for which it had originally been constructed. While not flashy, this type is
An Instrumented Study of Indoor Air Quality in Lincoln Elementary School
Student authors: Alison Hovey and Kevin Koenig, Ball State University
Faculty advisor: Robert Koester
Developed in a class taught by Robert Koester, Thad Godish, Robert Fisher and Jeff Culp
The jury recognized that all of the competition entries addressing air quality were
very detailed and professional. For the jurors, the study of Lincoln Elementary School
rose to the top of this group because it had the strongest connection to issues of
architectural design. Also, the report was clear about what the students learned each time
they went to the site. The jury felt that other IAQ studies tended to address problems of
building maintenance rather than linking to building design decisions. They believed the
Lincoln Elementary School study could help make the point with architecture students and
architects that IAQ should be a critical area of concern for them and cannot be considered
an issue to be resolved solely with engineering solutions.
Liberty Elementary School
Student author: Rajat Randev, University of Idaho
Faculty advisor: Bruce Haglund
The jurors appreciated the fact that this study represented an extraordinary amount of
work and covered a broad range of issues. The study involved a discussion of thermal mass;
whether it's worth it, how it can complicate cost and performance, and the relation to
HVAC performance. The jurors believed the study presented a very clear hypothesis. The
student straightforwardly measured the effectiveness of the thermal mass. The research was
well executed and the findings clear. Several jurors did express reservations about the
conclusions the student drew from his work. They believed that while his findings showed
that the mass did not work as originally intended, he appeared reluctant to accept this
fact. In spite of this reservation, the jury concluded that the student exhibited an
understanding of a range of complicated issues related to the presence of thermal mass in
In general, the jurors were surprised at how poorly prepared many of the students were to examine building performance issues. The jury was also surprised at how little experience students appeared to have with actual buildings. Most students were disconnected from the physical issues they were examining. Furthermore, students seemed to lack the ability to engage these problems. The jury believed that this reflects the fact that architecture as a profession does not have a way of speaking about buildings once they are occupied and in use. For most students the language of building performance and the physical environment was a new one. Most students could only speak it haltingly.
Overall, many of the reports had great strengths but most had significant flaws as well. Despite these problems, the jurors believed strongly in the concept of case studies of existing buildings. Students may be ill-equipped to examine building performance, but they've got to start somewhere.
For many students there appeared to be profound and yet naive re-discoveries. "More light equals more heat." "It's warmer at the top of the stairs." The jury believed that an extraordinary amount of learning took place as a result of the competition. Still, they hoped that in a few years such findings wouldn't strike students as "new discoveries".
A weak link in the student entries was the inability to articulate a hypothesis. Often
there was none, or only a limited ability to structure it. Students need to learn that any
study, be it in the sciences or the humanities, has to begin with a question. Also, many
students appeared to be wearing blinders that limited their ability to see the building as
a whole. They often described details without any broader explanation of the building. An
understanding of how the parts integrate with the whole was lacking. The jury believed
that case studies present great opportunities for architectural education. One juror
suggested that schools could structure pedagogy around 50 to 100 buildings that would be
known for more than their visual and formal structure. These buildings would also be
understood structurally and thermally, as well as in terms of process, economics, client
response, and post-occupancy evaluations. Schools could build a complete database and use
it for their core curriculum. Vital Signs provides one piece of this.
The Vital Signs Curriculum Materials Project
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All contents copyright (C) 1998 The Vital Signs Project. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 22, 1997