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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Naomi Keena


Hometown: Kildare, Ireland
Undergraduate Study: BArch Architecture
Graduate Study: M.S. Architecture; MArch II
Department:  Architecture, Built Ecologies
Faculty Advisor: Prof. Anna Dyson


Describe your graduate research and its purpose/applications.

My Ph.D. research questions, if we broaden the scope of energy and material analysis within architectural design to consider both ecological resources and relationships as well as human resources and capital, then can interactive visual analytics be a means to characterize effects in terms of comprehensive socio-ecological factors. The motivation of this research is to investigate the environmental effects which are generated by the built environment process. Underpinned by the emergy analysis method, this research aims to consider both the energy, material, and information flows of a system, such as a built ecology, and to understand both the work of the techno-sphere in constructing our built environments and that of the geo-biosphere in sustaining such development. The predicted outcomes of the research include the simultaneous representation of socio-ecological factors within different design options through novel data visualization methods, towards a critical review of the potential for emergy analysis, particularly during the schematic design phase.

Through this research, we are developing a toolkit for emergy analysis and visual analytics including Clark’s Crow and SEVA (Socio-Ecological Visual Analytics) respectively. Clark’s Crow runs within existing architectural design environments with an aim to allowing queries regarding material and energy flows to be addressed in conjunction with design choices during the initial stages of architectural design. SEVA, a proposed new network of analytical techniques designed to quantify, visualize, and communicate socio-ecological factors within architectural design, could offer unprecedented decision-making capacity and insight building. The aim of the research is to reveal vital new methodologies for architectural design with respect to characterizing environmental impacts and relationships.

What are your hobbies and interests?

In my free time, I enjoy running, exploring New York City’s many art galleries, strolling through the city's distinct neighborhoods, photographing its architecture, and spending time with family and friends.

What made you decide to attend Rensselaer?

Prior to entering the Built Ecologies program, I had worked as an architect for award-winning architectural practices in both Europe (Grafton Architects, ODOS architects) and the U.S.A. (Bernstein and Associates). During my time practicing, I became very interested in how computational design tools had the potential to influence design techniques, and yet the limitations of these tools in embedding and visualizing complex relationships and data to help guide early design decisions. I was interested in how visualization may help in revealing design intensions to allow for better communication between stakeholders of the built environment process. I pursued this line of research in 2008, when I received a Fulbright fellowship to study a M.S. Architecture at Pratt Institute, New York. Through my thesis, titled “Branding Architecture: an investigation of branding techniques in architecture,” I investigated the power of visualization in portraying and communicating an idea or concept, with a focus on the architect client relationship. Following my master's, I taught for two years at the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield, UK. Through a series of studios and modules, I worked with both undergraduate and graduate students to investigate how parametric and 3D-modeling tools, combined with 3D-fabrication techniques, could be used to generate design which was influenced by environmental considerations and bioclimatic flows.

I decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in architecture where I could continue to research both my interest in visualization techniques and environmental analysis, and yet remain relevant to the practice of architecture. I was very excited about the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) and the Built Ecologies program. As a practicing architect, I wanted to both further my theoretical approach and participate in architectural research while not neglecting the practice of architecture. CASE, based in SOM architecture firm in New York, fosters research which is enriched by interdisciplinary collaboration between both the world of industry and practice as well as the world of academia. This is very unique in terms of Ph.D. programs and motivated my decision to attend Rensselaer. At CASE, I found a program that challenged the status quo in terms of environmental design considerations by understanding cities as built ecologies and by identifying the need for visualization in communicating complex relationships, thereby allowing for broad stakeholder engagement.

What are some benefits of being part of the Graduate Community at Rensselaer?

Rensselaer encourages interdisciplinary education. As a graduate student, you have many opportunities to collaborate and learn from other disciplines within RPI. Personally, I have collaborated within the realm of architecture, ecological economics, data science, and data visualization. This has given me a broader scope and perspective in which to research.

What would you tell a prospective student about choosing Rensselaer?

Rensselaer is renowned for pushing the boundaries in terms of research and interdisciplinary collaborations. I have experienced this through my participation on a grant funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a novel data visualization platform that integrates and visualizes vast amounts of data from the foundation’s Healthy Birth, Growth, and Development Knowledge Integration (HBGDki) initiative. The grant showcases RPI’s interdisciplinary research approach where CASE is partnering with Rensselaer researchers from Tetherless World Constellation (TWC) and across campus in the development of the Data Journey (DJ) platform. I would also highlight to prospective students that the campus is compact and friendly, and as a student you have much opportunity to take classes in a number of areas both within and outside your specific field of study due to RPI's strong interdisciplinary ethos. The graduate program is definitely challenging but immensely rewarding. The relationships and friendship you will develop are invaluable.

What are your plans following graduation?

Following my graduation, I plan to continue my dissertation area of inquiry within an interdisciplinary realm by designing and testing new methodologies for ecological visual analytics within architectural design. I hope to teach at the graduate level and instill in students a fundamental and comprehensive understanding of energy and material flows in the built environmental process so they can question its influence in the design of more ecologically conscious architecture.