Urban Scholar Highlight: Heather Burpee

Urban Scholar Highlight: Heather Burpee

Heather Burpee is a Research Associate Professor in University of Washington’s Department of Architecture and Director of Education and Outreach at the Integrated Design Lab in the Center for Integrated Design, located in the Bullitt Center. We sat down with her to discuss her work and research on high-performance buildings.

What are your current research interests at the University of Washington?

I am a research associate professor in the Department of Architecture, and I work in a small group called the Integrated Design Lab. We focus on ideas around high-performance buildings. What we think of as high-performance buildings are those that are both energy efficient and embody high quality attributes for people. Whether it’s for living or healing or learning, or any other aspect for how we use buildings.

How do high-performance buildings fit in the context of urban systems?

Buildings are a big part of how the fabric of urban environments come together. While we at IDL think about the building scale, this intersects with the community scale as well as a smaller scale within the building. People perceive their environments in multiple scales and we’re always thinking about those intersections.

How has research in your field has changed over the years?

In the last 10 years there’s become a greater emphasis on the importance of energy and energy efficiency, especially as it relates to sustainability and the larger issue of greenhouse gases. The expertise that we have about how to make buildings better informs how we make our urban built environment better, both for the people that are inhabiting it right now as well as for future generations. It’s about people’s health and atmospheric health.

What do you like most about the work that you do?

One of the important aspects, and one that I enjoy the most about my research is that I work with a lot of practitioners in the design and construction field. I help them apply their research findings and also learn what other issues need to be researched or what questions they have that could be addressed. I enjoy this reciprocal relationship of research and its actual application.

How important is data for addressing challenges in your field?

Really important when forming an understanding of a problem and then understanding how to solve that problem. It helps inform decision making, rather than a gut instinct of what may be right or wrong. It’s one of the reasons that we talk about high-performance buildings rather than green buildings: the definition of the former implies a measurable outcome, which to me is rooted in data or fact.

How does your work inform policy?

Policy is really important in the energy efficiency and building space generally, to move the whole market forward to a better design standard. Our work informs policy by shedding light on what’s a reasonable advance in the codes and standards for buildings. For example, after a building is constructed, we can look back and see how the building is actually performing and ask, does that match expectations. When we look at a new disclosure ordinance for example, where buildings are required to disclose their energy usage, this data is mapped, building by building, on publicly accessible maps so everyone knows how buildings are performing, which creates a collective and an incentive to shift policy.

What kind of partnerships do you engage in through your work?

One of the things that we do a lot is collaborate with stakeholders in the design and construction space. That includes a lot of architects, engineers, contractors, and owners of buildings. We do it in a lot of different ways, sometimes they are research partnerships, sometimes we are working on actual design projects, sometimes we’re working on codes and policies, or general knowledge building. This is again based on the reciprocal relationship between research and the application of research through real projects, and it is a conversation that is always continuing. Our research will inform how buildings get built and being part of a design team that’s actually designing a building helps inform our research initiatives.

Do you partner with other disciplines here at UW?

We partner with other faculty across the University of Washington. I think it’s important to have different points of view, different sets of expertise and skills in order to solve these really difficult problems together. Communication between disciplines can be challenging, due to difficulty in understanding each other’s specific language and vocabulary. How we think about and look at data is different. It’s a challenge but it’s an exciting space too, once we communicate with each other and figure out how to best utilize our skills so we are on the same page. In the energy-efficiency space, a lot of the technical challenges are surmountable, but challenges lie in process, finances and how people work together. There is value in better communicating what experts in the UW are doing and opening the dialogue between different disciplines on campus, and I think that’s the purpose of Urban@UW. It’s good to share people’s stories about what we’re working on, what works, what’s challenging and how we might be able to better help each other.

If you could give aspiring urban scholars a piece of advice, what would it be?

Keep your mind open to what your opportunities might be, because you never know what will present itself, and it might surprise you what you become interested in!

Written by Shahd Al Baz, Urban@UW Communications Assistant