Energy Spotlight – Alex Nutkiewicz, PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering
This interview series shines a spotlight on energy-focused members of the Stanford community – students, faculty, staff and alumni - and traces their foray into the field of energy, their journey so far and what they have planned for the future. By highlighting the incredibly diverse range of ongoing energy-oriented work at Stanford, the series hopes to spur conversations and forge connections within campus and beyond.
My interviewee this time around is Alex Nutkiewicz, who is a PhD student in the Urban Informatics Lab in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University.
R: Tell me about your background – what spurred your interest in energy, and how did you get started?
A: I did my undergraduate degree at Stanford too. My first experience with buildings and energy was as a freshman working on the Solar Decathlon, which is a biannual competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The challenge was to design and construct a net zero energy solar house, and I got to work on this project right from my first week here at Stanford. Coming in with no background in architecture and art, it was wonderful to design something and then to actually build it over the course of the summer. That was a turning point for me. It is typical to design buildings in class, but it’s not common to see your project constructed. The house is now at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, and it is so exciting to see a family living in it! Since I really enjoyed this experience, I then followed it up through research projects with Prof. Martin Fischer.
R: How would you broadly describe yourself and your work?
A: I was really fascinated by architecture when I first got to Stanford, and I was especially interested in how people interact with spaces in the built environment. Sustainability is, for me, a wonderful way to do computational architecture where you figure out how buildings can be designed and optimized from a sustainability perspective through data-driven analysis. At the same time, cities today are generating a lot of data. For instance, 1TB of data is generated in New York City every day, giving us a wealth of information on how the city functions – its energy and water consumption, health and well-being, pedestrian and vehicular traffic and weather patterns. This is an untapped resource that is often not considered much in building design. I am trying to bridge this gap, and thus I work at the intersection of sustainability, building science and data analytics and how that feeds into decision-making in policy. I am interested in projects in both developed and developing country contexts, both of which are unique in their own way.
R: What do you currently work on?
A: My main PhD project is the Data-driven Urban Energy Simulation (DUE-S) framework. As a bit of background, we currently use building energy models to understand how a building will consume energy for all 8760 hours of a year. Unfortunately, many of these models are inaccurate. One of the main reasons for that is that these models fail to account for their urban context. For instance, looking at one tower’s energy use does not account for shading and reflection between that tower and all the buildings around it, the microclimatic factors in the city, and the urban heat island effect. So, my research looks into how a variety of urban data streams like GIS data of existing buildings, historical weather data and a variety of other open-source data available from cities can be leveraged to more accurately predict building energy use by accounting for its urban context.
R: Can you share a surprising finding that emerged from your work?
A: I interned for ARUP, which is a building design and consultancy firm. I worked on a building in downtown LA that was getting a lot of complaints about heat gain and glare when the sunlight was not at all incident on that side of the buildings. Using sensor data and Twitter photos that tracked construction in the area, we found that a newly erected skyscraper nearby was causing significant environmental problems for people in these buildings. This, for me, demonstrated the potential for using underexplored data streams in the built environment.
R: What is your favorite aspect about your work?
A: When I started my PhD, I wanted to make sure that my research was strongly applicable. I didn’t want to do a more theoretical project that is published as a paper and never implemented in reality. So, I try to stay involved with and contribute to the ongoing conversation on how we plan our cities. This applied side of research is really appealing to me.
R: What are some real-world applications of your work that excite you?
A: In 2018, I worked on a project in Nepal – I learnt a lot from a sociocultural perspective. We worked with a non-profit called Today’s Youth Asia and a college called the Global Academy for Tourism and Hospitality Education (GATE). In 2015, there were a series of earthquakes in the rural hill districts of Nepal which are often underserved from an infrastructure perspective. There was an inflow of aid to the country to communities that were badly affected, but a lot of this aid is left in Kathmandu, which is far away from the affected villages. For instance, one of the families we interviewed lived in an agrarian village. Although their home survived two earthquakes, they refused to sleep in their house for fear that it will collapse if another quake hit. Instead, they slept in the structure that housed their animals. Our design challenge was to design a resilient house that was earthquake-resistant and minimized the amount of energy needed to provide basic thermal comfort for the residents. With a 4-week timeline for our design, we presented the design to members of Parliament and other non-profits in Kathmandu. The homes we designed are being constructed right now, and I found it really satisfying to have this kind of real-world impact.
I am also working on a project in India, where I am developing tools that rely on very limited data to inform the redevelopment of housing in Dharavi –one of the largest informal settlements in India and located in the heart of Mumbai. The goal of the project is to help inform design and policy that will maintain thermal comfort and minimize the energy burden for households that will occupy this new housing.
R: Tell me about some projects that are in the pipeline.
A: I just got accepted in the Young Scientists Summer Program, which is a 3-month program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria. I will be working on the Decent Living Energy project in collaboration with scientists there, assessing 5-6 informal settlements around the world. The goal is to figure out how much energy is needed to achieve a ‘decent quality of life’.
R: What do you see as the next horizon in the field of energy?
A: I am most interested in the future of energy access for rural or underserved communities and neighborhoods.
R: What things in the field of energy are still a mystery to you?
A: I know very little about the intersection of energy use in buildings and transportation, especially now with the rise of EVs, so I’m interested in learning more about how this phenomenon will impact how we plan future energy systems.
R: Which two organizations outside your own do you know the most people at and why?
A: Outside the Urban Informatics Lab, I know a lot of people in the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP) at Stanford, which has annual cohorts of people working on environmental issues from a diverse set of backgrounds on campus. We traveled to Washington, DC, over Spring Break, met with a range of government officials, NGOs and think tanks and learned about translating research into policy and communicating highly technical work to a lay audience.
The other community is the Bair Island Aquatic Center, which is a rowing club in Redwood City. We row on the Redwood Channel, and I appreciate having something outside of Stanford that I can participate in regularly. The only downside is that I need to be up at 4am every morning in order to do that!
R: Teach me something I don’t know in the next few minutes.
A: I’ll tell you how to make pizza dough. I learnt how to make it recently, and I have now stopped buying dough at the grocery store. You heat up water to 100 degree F and put in a small amount of yeast and honey, letting it sit for eight to ten minutes. Add this mixture to a bowl with flour and salt. I like to add red pepper flakes and oregano too! Knead the dough for about ten minutes, adding in some olive oil. Let the dough rise for an hour or so, and voila, you have pizza dough. Expect to be covered in flour, though.
R: What’s one interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume?
A: I love baking, and my favorite thing to make is a double chocolate Pavlova with mascarpone, cream and strawberries. I get this habit from my mom, and we have a family cookbook that has recipes collected over the last 200 years.
R: What advice would you give your younger self?
A: I always remind myself that staying relaxed and trusting that things will work out is key to handling stressful situations.
R: How might interested people get in touch with you?
A: My profile is on the lab website and I’d love to connect via my email: alexer[at]stanford[dot]edu.
Photo credit: Gustavo Costa (https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-playing-piano-1771304/)