Engineering Inside:

2015 Issue 4
Smart Buildings

Meet Chris Steffens!

November 2015
people_stevens_chris_steffens

Chris Steffens

I am an architectural lighting designer and energy consultant in New York City, and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken New Jersey.  Currently, I am advising the Stevens “SURE HOUSE” team at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 competition in Irvine, California.

Having spent 10 years in the entertainment lighting and controls industry, I gained tremendous breadth of experience working in the field, on the bench, and as a project manager.  I most enjoyed lighting architecture and public spaces, so I returned to school for a Masters of Fine Arts in lighting design from Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York City.  My current work is primarily focused on the impact of light and energy on the built environment.  I work with engineers, architects, and lighting firms designing and optimizing buildings for daylight, electric lighting systems, and photovoltaic arrays.

LED lighting sources are now leading the way in efficacy (light output for a given power input) and color rendering quality. Low voltage LED track lighting was installed in the Stevens SURE HOUSE project. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

LED lighting sources are now leading the way in efficacy (light output for a given power input) and color rendering quality. Low voltage LED track lighting was installed in the Stevens SURE HOUSE project. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

1. Why did you choose to study the engineering field?

I have always been interested in the positive impact engineering and technology can have on people and on the planet.  My undergraduate work was centered on product design for manufacture, technology transfer, and manufacturing engineering technology.  Our factories, homes, and businesses account for nearly half of our primary (source) energy consumption here in the United States.  If we are to mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to shift our energy economy to more efficient systems and methods.  I feel very fortunate that every day I am able to make positive design and engineering decisions involving energy efficiency and renewable energy.

2. What do you love about engineering?

From design through to construction, every project develops a unique personality.  Optimizing each building is an investigative engineering and design challenge.  For example, at the beginning stages of the design process, I may spend many hours creating a computer model to allow the design team to better understand the seasonal effects of weather and sunlight on the building.  Using computer simulations, I will test several versions of building systems, including windows, active and passive heating and cooling strategies, and photovoltaic array designs.  I am always exited to measure and observe the finished building, because the results allow me to refine my modeling and make the next project even better.

Stevens Institute of Technology’s “SURE HOUSE” features two distinct photovoltaic solar arrays, powering its appliances, providing energy for electric vehicle charging, and heating domestic hot water. In the event of a neighborhood power outage, special electronics and switching systems activate to allow the home to safely disconnect from the utility and continue to produce power to charge phones and power small appliances. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

Stevens Institute of Technology’s “SURE HOUSE” features two distinct photovoltaic solar arrays, powering its appliances, providing energy for electric vehicle charging, and heating domestic hot water. In the event of a neighborhood power outage, special electronics and switching systems activate to allow the home to safely disconnect from the utility and continue to produce power to charge phones and power small appliances. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

3. How did you first get involved with “Smart” homes or buildings?  Share a project or inspiration with us please…

My graduate thesis project was a Solar Decathlon home called “Empowerhouse” – a zero net energy home designed for a first-time homeowner and an affordable homebuilder.  In regards to the “smart” systems in this home, the premise was not to overwhelm the family with extraneous technology or features.  We were able to include some sophisticated and inexpensive controls features that made the home easy to operate and energy efficient.  The lighting controls and “smart” features, such as fresh air ventilation with heat recovery, were tied together with wireless, battery-less switches and relays, all operating without complicated home automation systems.  The lighting fixtures were attractive and capable of being made by volunteers.

4. Is there a particular application or industry that you think could benefit the most from “Smart” building advances in the future?

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SURE HOUSE’s interior is spacious, bright, and inviting. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

Because we spend so much of our time in our homes and at work in buildings, wireless network interconnectivity to various building systems and appliances such as lights, thermostats, and hot water heaters will continue to be an area of big innovations in the home electronics industries.  The power systems engineering fields will also benefit from interconnected devices – everything from batteries, demand response systems, your electric vehicle, and local utility infrastructure one day may be freely communicating.

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition brings students and professional advisors together in the field to design and build an affordable, attractive, and innovative solar-powered home. From left to right, Stevens students Alex Carpenter, AJ Elliott, Stevens faculty Christopher Steffens, and master electrician John Kiyler.

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition brings students and professional advisors together in the field to design and build an affordable, attractive, and innovative solar-powered home. From left to right, Stevens electrical engineering students Alex Carpenter, AJ Elliott, and Greg Putlock, Stevens faculty Christopher Steffens, and master electrician John Kiyler.

5. You work with many students when developing a Smart Home….what are the rewards and challenges of working with students on this type of effort?
The most rewarding teaching moments for me have been those times when students

realize they have applied engineering principles learned in the classroom to bring a project from concept to reality.  For most projects, only the strongest concepts make it through to completion, because they are developed and refined by a large interdisciplinary team of design and engineering students.  The engineering students are involved in the design process at the start of the project, and as a result the design students are able to incorporate more rigorous performance-based analyses.  This process is challenging but important!

6. What challenges do we face in the area of “Smart” homes and structures?  What’s the biggest obstacle at the moment?

Key inventions like the telephone and the internet in the 20th century brought us into the “information age.” The 21st century has brought us to an “interconnection age,” where the challenges are not just to ask “how” we connect devices and people to information, but “why?”  Where are the opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions?  Your electric vehicle may connect to your home appliances and to the utility grid, storing solar energy for nighttime consumption, waiting to charge based on utility demand, responding by discharging to the grid to help the utility manage power and frequency.  The complexity of these interconnected device relationships will require a multitude of power systems and electronics innovations.

7. Whom do you admire and why?

I believe the greatest engineering challenges of this century are addressing climate change and providing energy services to our growing world population.  For that reason, I admire my students and their peers.  They are passionate about designing and engineering energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions for buildings and cities.

All-LED lighting and wireless controls provided SURE HOUSE with a flexible and dynamic nighttime presence. The controls system follows patterns of sunrise and sunset, automatically adjusting the warmth of the lighting fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom based on the time of day. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

All-LED lighting and wireless controls provided SURE HOUSE with a flexible and dynamic nighttime presence. The controls system follows patterns of sunrise and sunset, automatically adjusting the warmth of the lighting fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom based on the time of day. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

8. How has the engineering field changed since you’ve started?

I could not have imagined how quickly LED sources would come to dominate the lighting

industry.  Color quality and lumen output are steadily improving.  I’m excited and encouraged to see the number of women in the engineering field steadily increase.  Finally, the pace of the building design process has become so fast and so very challenging for engineers and designers; teamwork is a must!

9. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the field?

Never waste an opportunity to document, measure, and observe your work.  Photographs, logged data, and concise notes are the most important sources of information you can use to better understand how and why a building is performing the way it’s designed (or not).  The next project will incorporate these learned moments, and be a better building.

Good planning, communication, and collaboration at every stage of a project is key. During construction, we established procedures for safe work, reviewed daily tasks, and kept each other informed of any changes or issues. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

Good planning, communication, and collaboration at every stage of a project is key. During construction, we established procedures for safe work, reviewed daily tasks, and kept each other informed of any changes or issues. Credit: Juan Paolo Alicante

10. What advice would you give to recent graduates interested in working in the “Smart” arena?
It’s safe to say that most engineering, design, and architecture firms are actively seeking talent in the energy efficiency and renewable energy fields.  These companies can be small firms or large organizations.  Think about the type and size of work environment from which you might gain the most at the beginning of your career.  There are advantages and disadvantages to gaining experience at a small office, as there are working for a national or international firm with many staff and areas of practice.

11. If you weren’t in the engineering field, what would you be doing?

Though I really enjoy working in and around high performance buildings, I also enjoy exploring far away from the constructed environment, so I would probably be involved in field ecology or some other aspect of environmental science.

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