VAWS - From the Class Room to the Mechanical Room

May 1, 2017

How Architectural Engineering Students Benefit from a Partnership Between the University’s Faculty and Facilities Engineers

Teamwork: We work together in support of our mission. Our individual contributions are amplified by the synergistic effect of cooperative effort focused towards a common purpose. We value the individual as an integral member of the team. We treat each other with respect and dignity.

Part of the Values at Work Series

Learning Comes to Life

When it comes to teaching architectural engineering students how to design and understand the large and highly technical building systems in institutions, professors often look for opportunities for their students to see the systems where they come “alive” in order to better comprehend how they work. A facility must function well to serve its purpose to its occupants. Like a breathing organism, the electrical, mechanical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems pulsing throughout the facility must remain operational. If the systems go down, the facility cannot support its purpose. One of the best ways to help teach this is the definitive “show and tell” where the class room is replaced with the mechanical room.

This is the story of how a professor at The University of Texas at Austin helped make abstract concepts concrete in a partnership with the facilities professionals responsible for the university’s building operations. Twice a semester, she takes her students to a tour of two buildings: one that is newer and one that is older in order to compare and contrast the facilities in operation. How does our story begin? How do the tours impact the students?



Associate Professor Ying Xu

Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering

Associate Professor Ying Xu from the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) came to UT Austin in 2009. Her responsibilities include teaching a fundamental course required for CAEE students: Building Environmental Systems. The course provides architectural engineering students with the basic principles and knowledge they need for their future profession. Professor Xu starts the semester discussing some of the concepts integral to architecture and engineering theory. Describing the associated building systems in the classroom is augmented with images and videos, but the scale of the systems and their actual operations are hard to grasp without experiencing their functioning within the buildings, as Professor Xu explains. That is why she, as did her predecessors, sought out a facilities-based tour to complement the curriculum.

Forging a Partnership

Initially, the building tour for the semester took place within the Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall (ECJ), part of The Cockrell School of Engineering. As the curriculum developed, Xu sought out support from Facilities Services to facilitate tours at two research buildings on campus to better demonstrate the differences that decades can make in the way the two building systems are configured and operate. For example, building codes evolve over time so the design and layout of the building systems change—something which trained and experienced facilities managers know all too well.

Support for the student tours came readily at the capable hands of Randy Hooper, manager of the Engineering & Technical Support (ETS) group within Facilities Services. For their part, the group was more than happy to form an academic alliance with Professor Xu. Now in its fifth year, ETS views the partnership as an important opportunity to work in concert with the university’s faculty. Twice per semester, for a total of four tours a year, the alliance has strengthened the connection between academics and operations on campus. As Brian Stokes, mechanical engineer, sees it, “How often do staff engineers get to participate in the university’s educational mission and interact with the students in this way?” The ETS group believes the tours help students see building systems from an operational perspective, what Stokes referred to as “the building’s heart and lungs.”

Randy Hooper, manager of Facilities Services’ Engineering & Technical Support group, shares his facilities operations experience with CAEE students in a behind-the-scenes tour on the UT Austin campus.

A Tour of Two Buildings, Part 1: Newer Building

Early in the semester, Professor Xu discusses concepts such as understanding moist air properties, calculating building heating and cooling load, the function of air handler units (AHUs), and how air and water are distributed throughout the building via the HVAC systems. To demonstrate how this applies to an industrial-sized research facility in operation, the students are guided through the Neural and Molecular Science Building (NMS), which was completed in 2005.