Buildings are one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions that are changing the world’s climate, so who better to play a role in addressing the climate challenge than architects and designers.

The climate crisis is part of the impetus behind a new grant from VentureWell to provide curriculum development support for a series of courses focused on sustainable building and entrepreneurship. The grant, one of 13 awarded from throughout the U.S., is led by Omar Al-Hassawi, assistant professor, and David Drake, scholarly assistant professor in the School of Design and Construction. VentureWell’s program helps faculty develop courses and programs that encourage STEM innovation.

Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and over a third of global energy consumption.

Closeup of Omar Al-Hassawi
Omar Al-Hassawi

“Given the complexity and scale of the problem, achieving carbon neutrality in the built environment will require systems-level thinking, alongside unprecedented invention and innovation,” said Al-Hassawi. “Architects, interior architects, and landscape architects have a responsibility to develop effective, sustainable solutions that go beyond carbon neutrality.”

The new grant will support development of two graduate courses focused on sustainable design and entrepreneurship. The course sequence will cover carbon neutral design from individual building systems to implementation of these systems in a multi-family housing community.

During the intensive semester-long experience, student teams will design, prototype, and test innovative systems for carbon neutral architecture and then integrate the systems into designs for a multi-family housing community. Student teams will work with industry professionals to identify sustainability issues within existing building systems and develop viable prototypes. Examples might include development of more efficient heating and cooling systems or better waste management. The students will build rough scale mock-ups and test them in the lab. Continuing support will be provided for the most promising teams to move innovations toward commercialization.

At the same time, the courses will provide training in entrepreneurship. An entrepreneurial mindset will be critical for designers as they develop commercially viable solutions to the climate crisis, but it’s also increasingly important in general for today’s graduates.

Closeup of David Drake
David Drake

“What we’ve seen is that the entrepreneurial mindset is increasingly valued in the design professions,” Drake said.

Both Al-Hassawi and Drake have experience developing and commercializing innovative, sustainable building systems. Drake is part of a WSU project to commercialize novel building materials made from construction waste, and Al-Hassawi did work to develop sustainable cooling systems.

As part of the courses, the students will have access to prototyping facilities, and the researchers are also building a climatic test chamber. Students will receive entrepreneurial training, either by enrolling in an entrepreneur bootcamp offered by the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute, by participating in the WSU National Science Foundation I-Corp program, or through materials available through VentureWell.

“Our students are excited about the possibilities of making novel contributions, but they don’t necessarily know where to start,” said Al-Hassawi. “This training will help them as they seek to commercialize their ideas.”

The courses also give students the chance to get invaluable hands-on learning that will benefit them as they enter the workforce.

“There is a level of excitement and enthusiasm when students get involved with such hands-on experiences,” said Drake. “Getting more students involved in active building science is going to be fantastic for them.”