Michelle Addington on Why Architects Should Stop Thinking Like Architects

For your Columbus Day reading pleasure, we present the below report from Carrie Stallwitz, a Houston-based architecture and design writer who we dispatched to attend last week’s Rice University Design Alliance (RDA) lecture by D. Michelle Addington (pictured below), a NASA engineer-turned-associate professor at the Yale School of Architecture. Stallwitz went above and beyond the call of duty by also conducting a video interview with Addington, which we’ve posted after the jump.

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It turns out you do need to be a rocket scientist to change a light bulb. Except it’s not really a bulb, it’s an energy miser LED shaped to look like a trusty, inefficient old incandescent. As part of its lecture series looking at the creative convergence of engineering, computation, and architecture, Rice Design Alliance brought in Yale architecture professor Michelle Addington to discuss why architects need to stop thinking like architects.

Originally educated as a nuclear and mechanical engineer, Addington started her career at NASA, where she tested materials for unmanned spacecraft. After stints as a process and design engineer at a power plant, she shifted to architecture. In her current role as a researcher and scholar, she lectures around the globe on energy and building. For Addington, architecture is the perfect profession to embrace and integrate the teachings of other professions into the final built product. A bit of neuroscience, psychology, and thermal dynamics, with a dash of quantum physics, can help architects think beyond the building to the individual phenomena acting on the building and its occupants.


For example, most of us think we need nice oversize windows to allow in the perfect amount of daylight to stave off cranky Monday mornings. But all that bright daylight brings too much contrast into the space, so we overcome it with overhead and task lighting. And two extra espresso shots: Addington shows that experientially, people are actually happier in a space with smaller windows. Moreover, those small windows provide enough daylight to reduce reliance upon artificial lighting. And when artificial lighting is needed, those cool little LEDs are way more efficient than even a fluorescent light.

When it comes to thermal properties acting on buildings, Addington’s work and that of her doctoral students shows that “smart” buildings still have much to learn. Essentially, it’s not about the building at all. And that’s the really tough part for the architects. But we can all watch and learn from the ginormous development project known as Dubai.—Carrie Stallwitz

Carrie Stallwitz is the founder of Houston-based Witz!PR, a public relations firm that aims to “bridge the chasm of understanding between A/E/C professionals and the rest of the world.” She earned a degree in architectural studies from the University of Kansas.