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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

July 24, 2008

Ulrike Passe

Photo by Bob Elbert.

Green proponent glad to be in higher education

by Teddi Barron, News Service

A few years after the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans returned to their gas-guzzling, Btu-busting ways. But Europeans learned their lessons well. Facing increased population density, strained natural resources, higher energy prices and environmental emergencies like Chernobyl, they responded with progressive land use policies and tighter resource restrictions. Their cars got smaller, their mass transit smarter and their buildings greener.

So it is Iowa State's good fortune to have a European architect on board. For the past two years, assistant professor Ulrike Passe has been injecting a healthy dose of European-bred, green design into the architecture curriculum. And, as lead faculty on ISU's solar decathlon project (see sidebar), she's extending her expertise to the entire campus community.

Green or sustainable design reduces non-renewable resource use, minimizes environmental impact and relates people with the natural environment.

A university instructor and practicing architect in Germany since the early 1990s, Passe came to the College of Design's attention after some of her work was published as exemplary of green design and emerging practices.

"I thought that working in a U.S. academic institution would be an interesting challenge. And Iowa State has a good international reputation," she said. "Academia is THE place to push forward ideas that can then be elaborated on in practice. And vice versa -- the practice brings the questions.

Research for teaching

Passe studied in Berlin and London and taught in Potsdam and Berlin (for the University of Kentucky). She said she likes the American system of higher education because it supports emerging research and offers faculty the freedom to develop their own research while teaching. Her research passion is air flow and spatial composition.

"It's a very architectural topic, but it's a neglected topic in terms of energy. We put a lot of energy into just circulating air around inside of our buildings," she said.

"We can use force to move air with a fan. Or we can use gravity and physics -- which can be enhanced by design," she said. "I'm interested in how walls, openings, the widths of openings and the height of openings affect the flow of air."

Because the physics of air movement through spaces is quite complex, Passe started working with computational fluid dynamics faculty in the College of Engineering.

Germany's green architecture

Combining art and science comes naturally to Passe. The daughter of an engineer, she has "always been aware that there is a technical side to the world." Yet growing up in the port city of Hamburg, she felt very connected to nature, art and theater. At 18, she moved to Berlin to study architecture, which is an engineering degree in Germany. But she combined that with "a very cutting-edge, conceptual artistic education" during her study at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning in London.

And there were other influences along the way. During the 1980s, the Green Party -- which stresses environmentalism through grassroots democracy -- was coming into its own.

"By that time, Germany had faced some big environmental challenges related to the depletion of resources," she said. "When I was growing up, it was very obvious that the environment was crumbling."

Living in Berlin during the height of German reunification activity, Passe realized that architects have a voice in developing and implementing green policies.

"During the debate about restructuring Berlin, there was a lot of very interesting talk about sustainable communities -- trying to reduce the footprint of an urban development as much as possible. Greening the city, in other words," she said.

"Europe has been working on energy efficiency in buildings for quite some time, thanks to a different energy policy, higher energy costs, and seeing on your front doorstep that things were going very wrong.

That's a lesson the United States, and Iowa State, can learn from, she said.

"Evaluate and renovate existing buildings. It's a failure not to look at that," Passe stressed.

"Europe and Germany took care of the existing building infrastructure," she said. "In 2009, it will be mandatory that every building being sold must have its exact energy usage posted. Like miles per gallon for cars."

Training architects to think green

There is perhaps no better place to start than with the next generation of architects.

"There's a strong drive from this new generation to be green. That is really positive," she said.

But classical architecture education -- where students learn design in one class, theory in another, and humanities and technology in other classes -- saddles students with a monumental task. They must make all the connections to integrate, for example, solar angles, heat transfer, social behavior and building layout into a design.

Green technology, however, is not added to the form after it's designed. It's an integrated design process.

"It just doesn't work to design a form and then add technology to it. The form itself is a result of orientation, how you use the site, how you relate it to solar angles, how the space uses the air and heat of the sun to make systems as small as possible and the space most comfortable," she said.

Learn by experiencing

She would like to see technology classes like her own -- Environmental Forces and Controls -- taught as workshops, where students learn by experiencing.

"They can work with performance-testing equipment like infrared cameras in their own homes to learn what it means to live in an apartment with no shade and the air conditioning running full blast. They discover that they live in energy households and begin to understand how green works when it's not detached from their own experience," she said.

"Architecture is not pure science. Architecture encompasses many areas, from behavior and sociology to physics and energy. And conceptual design brings it all together."

"We ask questions about how we can produce energy-efficient, sustainable environments that are also nice to live in," Passe said. "In the end, it's not about technology, it's about people. People inhabit the spaces."

Team prepares for solar decathlon

Although Ulrike Passe is the lead faculty member on ISU's extensive solar decathlon project, the proposal came out of an architecture faculty research group, the Green Design Research Collaborative -- Kimberly Zarecor, Mikesch Muecke, Clare Cardinal-Pett, Kevin Lair (now at Syracuse University) and Passe.

Now, 19 faculty and staff, six graduate students and an entire team of undergraduates are well on their way in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition. Iowa State was one of 20 university teams from four countries selected for the competition to design, build and operate the most attractive, effective and energy-efficient solar-powered house. In the fall of 2009, the houses will be assembled as a solar village on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Iowa State's "Interlock House" will be a free-standing solar-powered dwelling that will generate enough energy for its needs and direct any surplus to the grid.

"One reason we were successful might have been that this prototype is part of a larger strategy that has to do with densification of suburbia," she said.

The Interlock House's design uses three primary features to create thermal comfort and energy efficiency:

  • A photovoltaic array to produce electricity
  • The structure's envelope and thermal mass to capture and store energy
  • Water-based radiant heat and cooling vents and the house spatial composition to balance overall energy flows

"The Solar Decathlon competition is the one of the most prestigious events in the country for green design," she said. "It exposes the university and its green design and technology and solar research to the world."

Project leaders are working with the university to find an indoor space to begin construction this fall. And fund raising is well under way. Donations can be made online or by contacting Kimberly Zarecor, 4-5026 or .


"Architecture is not pure science. Architecture encompasses many areas, from behavior and sociology, to physics and energy. And conceptual design brings it all together."

Ulrike Passe