Planners and Epidemiologists? Architects and Roboticists?

The School of Architecture and Planning is finding new bedfellows in research at helm of UB’s Collaborative “Communities of Excellence.” 

Buffalo School architects and planners are at the forefront of UB’s $25 million investment in new interdisciplinary research.

School of Architecture and Planning architects and planners are at the forefront of UB’s $25 million investment in new interdisciplinary research.

by Rachel Teaman

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Architects and planners are accustomed to working across disciplines, but a new research initiative at UB takes it up a notch, joining School of Architecture and Planning faculty and students with epidemiologists, anthropologists, engineers and economists to advance paradigm-shifting research in global health, manufacturing and construction. 

The unique combinations stem from the School Architecture and Planning’s conception and now co-leadership of two highly interdisciplinary research centers, or “Communities of Excellence,” at UB – Global Health Equity (GHE) and Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART). The two communities were announced in May after a highly competitive process that fielded 100 proposals from faculty across the university. Along with a third community on genomics and UB’s existing RENEW Institute on energy, water and the environment, SMART and GHE will drive a $25 million, five-year investment by UB in collaborative research that addresses grand societal challenges.

GHE will work to reduce health disparities in some of the poorest pockets of the world by focusing on the complex sources and effects of inequity. Pairing health scientists with cross-synergizing disciplines including architecture, planning, industrial and systems engineering, geography, anthropology and law, GHE will address gaps in sanitation for people with disabilities, high exposure to air pollution among neonates and young infants, and inefficient and inequitable access to healthy food and medication.

Bringing together the School of Architecture and Planning’s expertise in digital design and making with UB’s strengths in engineering and Buffalo’s broad industrial base, SMART will develop technologies and production methods to increase the environmental and economic sustainability of manufacturing and construction. The community will also advance customization and cyber-empathic design in products as small as medical devices and as large as architectural facades.

As they take on new questions with new partners, faculty leaders say the cross-pollinating research could push the field and professions into new territory, open up avenues for experiential and entrepreneurial learning, innovate industry and practice, and move the needle on social andeconomic issues at the local and global scale.

Global Health Equity

Co-leaders of GHE are Pavani Ram, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health; Korydon Smith, associate professor of architecture; Li Lin, professor of industrial and systems engineering; and Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning. © University at Buffalo, photo by Douglas Levere

Why it matters: Global health is a sweeping humanitarian concern, with implications for local and global economies and political systems, social justice and even public safety. Says co-lead Korydon Smith: “Global health is a concern of everyone.” 

Opening new territory: With more than 70 faculty members across UB interested in partnering with GHE, this community will peel away the layers of global health challenges to find connections to culture, gender norms, human behavior, policy and the built environment. Co-lead Pavani Ram explains: “The mission of our community is to reduce the sources and effects of inequity,” including gaps in drug discovery for neglected diseases, gender gaps in the provision of health care, and unjust public policies. To tackle these issues, GHE will form four core research groups: child survival and development; infectious disease; non-communicable diseases and disabilities; and refugee health. UB is only one of two universities in the U.S. to apply the highly cross-disciplinary “APEX” model to global health. GHE also identifies equity as its core concern. “We’re generating relationships, ideas and questions at the borders of our disciplines,” says co-lead Samina Raja. Consider the discipline of industrial and systems engineering, which will support GHE’s development of health care delivery systems. Co-lead Li Lin says equity is a new lens for a field that aims to improve the efficiency and quality of complex systems while reducing cost. “Here we are trying to achieve what’s best for the overall system; for this to work there must be compromise.”

Creating new educational models: Cross-departmental enrollment in courses in architecture, planning, public health, engineering and the social sciences will lead to a graduate certificate program in global health, a “UB Goes Global” program to promote interdisciplinary and interprofessional education, and new curricular options in the master of public health, bachelor’s degree in environmental design and UB’s general education program. GHE will take students out of the classroom and into experiential settings, with Raja taking the first group to India’s state of Kerala this spring to assess sanitation and solid waste disposal (including the reduction, recovery and disposal of food waste) in partnership with Indian think tanks, local universities and local government. 

Partnering on the ground: Through a strategy to “influence the influencers,” from funding agencies and policy-makers to urban planning organizations and ministries of rural development, GHE seeks to achieve both local impact and systemic change. Building on established faculty connections — e.g., Ram’s research in South Asia and the School of Architecture and Planning’s 25-year study abroad program in Costa Rica — GHE will focus on three to five settings for long-term engagement. Recognizing the manifestation of global health challenges in our own backyard, GHE will also concentrate on Western New York’s growing refugee population and the agencies that serve them. 

Get Involved

Get Involved: Are you an architect or planner practicing in the area of global health? Get involved at the ground level as a GHE professional partner. 

Contact Korydon Smith:

Global Health Equity Walk-Through

The Hidden Consequences of Poor Sanitation for Women and Girls in India

woman in field.

Though widely accepted in India, the practice of open defecation is demeaning to women and girls, who are subjected to perceived and actual threats to their personal safety. The lack of privacy even excludes girls from schools, fueling the cycle of poverty.

One-third of the world’s population, or two billion people, lack access to proper sanitation, a cause of parasitic infections, diarrheal disease and, relatedly, malnutrition. But the effects of poor sanitation extend well beyond physical health. Consider the state of women and girls in India, where the cultural norm of open defecation contributes to psychosocial stress as women are often taunted or physically harassed. A related (and often hidden) consequence is that adolescent girls, due to a lack of privacy, will miss school during menstruation (and often drop out completely), fueling the cycle of poor education and poverty. Architecture and planning, therefore, play a pivotal role in breaking the cycle.

Imagine Pune, India, one of India’s poorest districts, as a hypothetical GHE site of study. UB social scientists, architects, planners, environmental engineers and health scientists study gender norms related to the practice (e.g., for privacy, women and girls often relieve themselves in the early dawn in open fields, putting them at greater risk of attacks); public policy (e.g., while India’s prime minister has pledged to eliminate open defecation by 2019, similar past campaigns have failed due to the public’s unwillingness to change sanitation habits); spatial and territorial factors (e.g., rural schools often lack private sanitation areas for girls); and cultural context (e.g., the stigma of emptying toilet pits is associated with India’s caste system, in which it was the job of the “untouchables” to clear away waste).

To address the issue of almost unimaginable scope, GHE engages India’s national “Swachh Bharat” (Clean India) initiative and non-governmental organizations such as Shelter Associates, in the midst of a multi-year project to achieve “one home, one toilet” across Pune’s state of Maharashtra. Global firms with offices in India bring experience in working with Indian government in planning and design. A UB planning practicum sends a multi-disciplinary team of students to Pune to collect data, meet with local partners, conduct site assessments, and make policy and design recommendations to steer change at the systemic level. This, in turn, contributes to both the learning of students and best practices to be modified and used elsewhere.

Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART)

Co-leaders of SMART are Kemper Lewis, professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Omar Khan, associate professor and chair of architecture; Kenneth English, deputy director of the Center for Engineering Design and Applied Simulation (CEDAS); and Michael Silver, assistant professor of architecture. © University at Buffalo, photo by Douglas Levere

Why it matters: UB architects and engineers say SMART will make Buffalo a center of innovation in advanced manufacturing, train the industry’s future leaders and give the nation a leg up in a fiercely competitive global industry. “It’s a radical agenda. We’re rethinking the entire system,” says co-lead Omar Khan. 

Opening new territory: While many U.S. universities are pursuing advanced manufacturing research, few match SMART in the breadth of its disciplinary connections and the depth of its reach into the field. SMART takes on the paradigmatic shift of fusing information into all phases of manufacturing, from fully digitized design and fabrication to sensor-embedded products and building materials. Says co-lead Michael Silver: “To our knowledge, we’re the first program to bring together large-scale and small-scale digital design.” A special focus on co-robotics in construction could make building sites safer, projects more efficient and labor smarter. SMART goes beyond green buildings to consider net-zero-waste manufacturing processes and complete product lifecycle analysis. Touching 20 disciplines and research centers across the university, SMART encompasses five engineering programs, economics, management and several UB product and business incubators to facilitate technology transfer and economic development. Co-lead Kemper Lewis, a mechanical engineer, says the program’s focus on sustainability, customization and quality could advantage the nation over countries with low-cost, low-skill labor and minimal environmental regulations. 

Creating new learning experiences: With regional manufacturers as test beds, SMART adopts a corporate enterprise model that puts students on the factory floor to take projects from concept to business plan. Students will get to experience and innovate within a “Sandbox” with new rapid prototyping equipment including a water jet cutter, robot arm and CNC machining center. New course offerings will lead to a multidisciplinary master of science in advanced design and manufacturing. Such experience will open new career paths for students in design entrepreneurship and manufacturing leadership. 

Partnering on the ground: A key goal of SMART is to fuel the region’s growing advanced manufacturing sector, a top economic development priority linked to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative. Among SMART’s leading partners is Buffalo Manufacturing Works, an innovation and economic development center through which SMART can connect faculty and students with regional firms. Additional partners include architectural terra cotta manufacturer Boston Valley Terra Cotta, Rochester-based Construction Robotics and global construction firm LPCiminelli. SMART’s impacts will range from technology disclosures and patents to changing the way product sustainability is measured industry-wide. 

SMART Walk-Through

Construction robot prototype OSCR-3, in his bipedal position, is designed to haul materials, climb ladders and navigate construction sites.  


Construction Co-Robotics

Co-lead and Assistant Professor of Architecture Michael Silver is already leading research that will be among SMART’s first test cases. His Rust Belt Robotics Group, co-directed by two UB computer science engineers, is on its fourth in a series of On-Site Construction Robot (OSCR) prototypes. The humanoid robots, which stand less than two-feet tall, are designed to haul materials, climb ladders and navigate construction sites. Developed with consultation from contractors, masons and trade unions, the robots would work with – not replace – laborers, supporting greater productivity and workforce development. Cited by Architect Magazine’s 2015 R&D Awards, the research would also introduce logistical efficiency to construction sites by linking robots to the cloud. The current prototype is being programmed to transmit BIM (Building Information Management) data – e.g., material needs and scheduling adjustments – between the jobsite and the offsite project team. 

Rust Belt Robotics turns next to a multi-year proof-of-concept initiative with Buffalo-based construction firm LPCiminelli, which will test the prototype on an actual jobsite and advance the robot as a tool for contractors. Silver says this work is an example of how SMART can push the disciplines of architecture and engineering into new intellectual territory. 

“We’re not just appropriating tools. We’re building them. That requires new kinds of collaboration between architects and engineers.”