BOZEMAN -- A team of recent Montana State University graduates in engineering and architecture has earned a top award at an international competition testing their ability to cooperate and push the envelope of energy-efficient design.

From left, Andrew Neff, Neal Gray, Connor Christian and Giles Hardy. Photo courtesy Andrew Neff.)

Connor Christian, Neal Gray, Giles Hardy and Andrew Neff placed second in the integrated sustainable building design category at the 2019 ASHRAE Design Competition and Applied Engineering Challenge for a project they completed before graduating in May. The team was selected from among 42 that previously advanced from the competition's regional level to the international event.

"This is the premier competition for architecture and engineering to collaborate on a project," said team co-adviser Kevin Amende, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

The team was given a set of plans for a new, 70,000 square-foot hospital in Budapest, Hungary, and tasked with making recommendations to alter the design to make the building as energy-efficient as possible using innovative design strategies and technologies.

A small model of the energy-efficient hospital designed by the team. Photo courtesy Andrew Neff.)

Team co-adviser Barry Newton, teaching professor in the School of Architecture in MSU's College of Arts and Architecture, said the competition gives the students a valuable opportunity to experience what it's like to work together in professional practice. The architects gain a stronger understanding of how mechanical systems fit within a building, while the engineers learn how decisions made early in the design process — such as building orientation and materials — affect energy performance, he said.

"I was pretty proud of our team," said Neff, who earned his bachelor's in mechanical engineering at MSU. "It was a great opportunity to work with other disciplines." For the project, he called mechanical contractors for help with tackling design challenges posed by the project. "We had to learn a lot that wasn't taught in class," he said.

Christian, who participated in the project while earning his bachelor's in environmental design in the School of Architecture, agreed that the experience of working with engineers took the design in a fruitful direction. "We were really able to experience that communication between both sides and get this project accomplished," he said.

Christian contacted the facilities manager at the Swedish Medical Center near Seattle and ultimately took a tour of the building to gather ideas for the team's design. "We were able to research and find technologies to incorporate into the project that really reduced its overall impact (in terms of energy use)," said Christian, who, while an undergraduate, worked in MSU's Integrated Design Lab, analyzing how natural light in buildings offset the need for mechanical lighting. For example, he said, the team designed an air conditioning system that cooled air using ice produced when electricity prices were lowest, such as at night.

Neff and Gray, who graduated from MSU in May with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering technology, researched innovative ventilation practices, leading the team to design an operating room system that circulated large volumes of clean air when the rooms were in use but otherwise conserved energy by reducing airflow.

Neff said the project mimicked the real-world environment he finds himself in now as a designer at a local mechanical contracting firm. "On a daily basis I have to converse with architects, general contractors, other mechanical contractors," he said.  "This opportunity helped me sharpen those skills."

According to Amende, the integrated sustainable building design is known as the most difficult of the ASHRAE competition's three categories. The MSU undergraduate team, often competing against graduate students at the international competition, has placed first or second several times in recent years, which is a testament to how capable and motivated the students are, Newton added.

The team will be recognized during ASHRAE's Winter Conference, which takes place Feb. 1-5 in Orlando, Florida.

- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -